31 years old, a reflection

 

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I turned 31 years today (Friday the 27th July, 2018). Yet inside I don’t feel as though I have changed significantly from when I was the 8 year old girl above, celebrating my birthday at the Stratford Upon Avon caravan site I visited every summer holiday.  I suspect that because I am autistic, I have followed my own developmental path that separates me from my age peers. I’ve never been in a relationship, never had a proper job, and I spend a lot of time alone because I struggle with socialising and do not have the strong social drive that occupies non autistic people. Inside I can be playful, strong willed, egocentric, and I’m often unable to see someone else’s point of view, resulting in what some might label  as childish behaviour.

That said, I continue to make small gains each year in terms of my confidence and ability to challenge my fears and OCD.  Last year I have achieved the following:

  • Developed a new friendship with another autistic woman
  • Ate at several new cafes in my area, including having chips at a local pub with my new friend
  • Began cooking fish, first with support and then on my own (I had huge OCD contamination fears around handling and eating fresh fish)
  • Began cooking all meals at my new flat, increasing my independence
  • Went on several trips to Brighton, including to the Brighton Pavilion  and the natural history museum on a supported outing; with a friend; and traveled there once on my own
  • Can confidently travel to Horsham on my own
  • Went on a supported outing to Guildford- first time I had looked round the town
  • Attended a new autism social group, run by Autism Hampshire. I used Google maps to find the venue, and traveled there all on my own! (I only went to a couple of meetings, and stopped attending because it was too noisy and unstructured, but was a good challenge)
  • Presented an Aspie Trainer talk on women and autism three times, at different venues
  • Presented an Aspie Trainer talk on autism and sensory issues for the first time
  • I was interviewed about autism for a local radio station
  • Took part in a colour perception research study at Sussex University
  • Began my you tube video channel at the end of 2017
  • Went to Portsmouth on my own several times, including my  first visit to the Natural History museum
  • Created an organisational system for my files with my support worker’s help, which has brought a bit more order to my life and has helped me develop my cooking skills
  • Developed my interest in food by becoming very interested in seasonality or what foods are currently growing in the UK
  • Had a cognitive assessment, which showed that I have a very high verbal IQ, but have severe non verbal challenges
  • Began going on regular outings, on my own, to Arundel
  • Ate twice ( teacake and then scone) at new cafe in Arundel

A few changes have also taken place this year. At the end of 2017, I stopped volunteering at AGE UK (which I had been doing for just over 5 years) because I was struggling to mask my autism and needed more space for myself. This decision, while not easy, has definitely improved my stress levels.

My support worker of 10 years announced that she was leaving a month ago, and I said goodbye to her earlier this week (although we will keep in touch).  I feel sad that she is leaving and uncertain about the future, but am trying to focus on the positives in my life and to keep challenging my anxiety.

Finally, on Thursday,  I baked a cardamom, banana, cranberry, and green tea loaf cake for my birthday (with thanks to my support worker who gave me the recipe from a Waitrose card).

 

 

 

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My day in food

I thought I would write down what I had to eat on one random day. My daily eating habits are quite varied because I enjoy experimenting with different recipes.

                                                                                                                                     Breakfast

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”Black forest” overnight oats  with cherries, chocolate, grated pear, cocoa powder and yogurt  (BBC Good Food recipe)

                                                                                                                                    Lunch 

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Sourdough toast topped with peanut butter, and a strawberry, raspberry, banana and honey salad (a weight watchers recipe – no I’m not trying to get thinner than I already am, but I seek inspiration wherever I can find it!)

                                                                                                                                      Dinner

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Roasted ratatouille (courgette, aubergine, tomato and garlic) with penne pasta and cheese (BBC Good Food recipe).

                                                                                                                 A rather special dinner

On another day  I  made these courgette, mint, lemon and chickpea egg fritters in my frying pan,  served with cherry tomatoes, feta cheese and mint, a recipe which I discovered in the Waitrose food magazine. I was very pleased with how they turned out.

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Food update

Its been a busy couple of weeks in the kitchen. On Monday morning I made blueberry, lemon and poppy seed muffins, following a Waitrose recipe card; a  rare reprieve from my regular reading routine (I had just finished the scholarly philosophical primer Irrational Man).

Not being able to resist temptation, I ate two only a few minutes out of the oven. It was a delight to send two warm ones to my dad, because a pleasure shared is a lot more fun!

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I have also been experimenting with rye bread. As a child, rye bread was my bete noire or culinary black beast. My parents served the full bodied bread every Sunday breakfast, in place of the much preferred wheat bread. To disguise its taste I slathered the bread in honey, jam, or butter. By analogy, everytime the weather was muggy, sticky, and replete with flies, I would call it a ”ryebready day”!. I have no idea what people thought when I said this, because I forgot or did not care that others would not necessarily share my particular association.

There are many food items that I detested as a child that I now enjoy as an adult, such as peanut butter, kale, rice (I had to mix a ton of mayo into it in order to stomach the grains – yuk!),  runny eggs and spinach.  Knowing that my taste has evolved, I decided to try rye again and give it the benefit of doubt ( a trick of all good philosophers). Rye bread is a well of nutrition and contains very few ingredients, unlike the pap that we often call wheat bread, with its additives, sugar, E numbers, vegetable oils and a pile of substances I can’t even name.

In order to find inspiration, I stumbled upon a Jamie Oliver recipe for rye bread topped with mashed beetroot, cottage cheese, hummus, avocado and seeds.

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Moving in a slightly more maverick direction, I am busy testing out the rye bread Wimbledon: strawberry, banana and Greek yogurt. I’m not sure yet if this combination is quite up my kitchen (to pardon the pun) , but time will tell.

On the porridge front, I am trying a range of summery mixtures, including this ”Summer porridge” from the BBC Good food website.  I simply blitzed blueberries with milk, which I then mixed into raw oats and left to soak for 5 minutes, while I periodically gave it a stir. I topped the porridge with sliced kiwi and pomegranate seeds.

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Finally I can’t resist presenting a case of strawberries in love. I found this pair in a punnet of less than perfect strawberries (I think they meant more than perfect; it is humanities’ fault that we can’t appreciate nature’s blurred lines).

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It was with some regret that I yanked the conjoined duo apart.

We should all buy nature’s ”unwanted” specimens. By doing so we both limit food waste and advocate on behalf of the irregular and diverse.

Trip to Preston Park

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Yesterday, a rather chilly and grey June day,  I visited Preston Park manor house on a supported outing. I had never been to Preston Park before, and was glad that the place gave me very good vibes. Preston Park is a leafy, hilly outcrop of Brighton, and the Edwardian rows of terraces and houses nestled within the tree topped hills is aesthetically pleasing.

Preston Park manor house is a very short walk from the station, and is open to the public between April and September. As a disabled person I got in on the concessionary charge of just over £3, while my support worker got free entry.

The manor house is surprisingly big, and it has several stories, including a basement and attic.  The house is set back from the busy road and overlooks a green park that you can view from the French windows.

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My favourite room in the house was the reception/drawing room, where distinguished guests would engage in gossip before being summoned by a gong to dinner. I liked the airy, spacious layout,  and the high ceiling with ornate carvings and chandeliers.  That would be the life:  reclining on the chaise longue with a  good book and mug of coffee.

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There were several bedrooms in the property. I would like to own a bed like the one below, because the curtains can be pulled to create a perfect sensory den.

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The basement was my least favourite part of the house. This was where the servants slaved away ‘below stairs’, preparing food for their master’s elaborate parties. The air was stale and it felt claustrophobic and oppressive, which made me feel slightly out of sorts. I stayed long enough to take a few photos, but was relieved when I climbed back up the narrow, windy staircase and into the light of day.

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I had a good time at Preston manor and came away with a bit more visual insight into how the well to do lived in Edwardian England. Part of me also wishes that I had enough money to buy a house like this (minus basement and servants) because it would provide the perfect setting for a civilised, quiet and bookish existence.

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https://brightonmuseums.org.uk/prestonmanor/

Seasonal cooking

I have recently developed a strong interest in eating seasonally (please check out my you tube channel for more information, at Autism’s individual). I like the order and predictability inherent in the changing harvest, which acts as a counterweight to the generally chaotic change that causes me a lot of anxiety. Eating seasonally, however, makes me anxious as well as motivated because I do not want to miss the latest bounty, even though I logically know that foods don’t just disappear over night. While gooseberries, for example, have a very short lived season, I don’t need to buy them as if there were no tomorrow – I have a month or two on my side. Yet a sense of urgency still persists, and I feel an intense pressure to eat each food in as many permutations as possible.

We are only in June, but this season has already bequeathed me with sundry recipes and sources of inspiration, which I will attempt to showcase here.

I am rather proud of the masterpiece below, which I discovered how to make on BBC Good food. Who would have thought that summer strawberries and smoked salmon go together? But as in high fashion, food rules are there to be broken. Anyway, we often throw grapes and orange segments into salads, and cheese and pineapple is a classic, so although strawberries might be late to the party, this is worth a try. The recipe also included fennel, which I’m not that keen on, although I wish I was as it is meant to be extremely nutritious   https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/3133/salmon-strawberry-and-fennel-salad

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I am a fan of crumbles for breakfast (not every day I’m afraid). Part of  the reason for this is because I like to eat healthily and crumbles  are often full of fat and sugar. My logic is that if I eat crumble for breakfast, I am not eating them on top of my other meals, so everything evens out. That said, my crumble is actually pretty healthy, as I only use just under one ounce of butter, and no more than two teaspoons of brown sugar. I also get at least one of my 5 a day into the bargain (n.b – I always aim to eat more than 5 a day!). The crumble photographed is a seasonal raspberry and blueberry ”crisp”, made with half oats, half flour, taken from a Waitrose food magazine.

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Peas are currently in season. There is something rather comforting and satisfying about podding peas, and fresh peas taste quite different to the frozen variety; they have more texture and bite. The meal below was ever so simple, as it was just peas, mustard, mint, and olive oil. Topped with cheese for protein, the meal was light but fulfilling, a perfect dish for summer   https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/1533/summer-pasta-with-peas-and-mint

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I am also devouring nectarines, peaches, apricots, broad beans, cucumber, lettuce and tomatoes, and am eagerly anticipating the arrival of gooseberries, greengages and British runner beans.

Energy: high versus low

On holiday in Devon at Clifford Bridge Caravan site. My favourite activity was to swim to the deep end, climb out, run back to the shallow end,  swim back, and repeat, over and over again.

As I ambled round a local gardens recently, I observed a young school girl running, releasing off steam. I envied the way she was allowed to do this, without incurring judgmental stares from passers by. How I wished that I could run free with the wind like her, because, deep down, I had energy to expend too.

I have always had moments of intense energy, but this is not consistent. The energy comes and goes in streams. Sometimes the energy is intense, creating a strong inner drive to jump and frolic. At other times, I can feel so depleted of energy that my legs turn to lead and it feels as though I am walking through tar. I am rarely in a state of balanced energy.

When the energy is intense, I have just the same urge to run and jump as that school girl I mentioned. I feel just as fit and healthy as her, and should be free to give in to the urge, and be my natural, vigorous self. However, I am very afraid of the watchful eye of other people, and can never turn off the critical self-talk that runs a commentary on my every action when out in public, making me feel acutely self conscious and inhibited. If I were to give in and run in public, I would not feel completely free anyway, because my mind would be analysing the behaviour, stifling spontaneity.

Currently the only place where I can unleash all my natural energy is at home, in the kitchen. The laminated floor provides the perfect setting for my super high spring jumps, running and tip toe walking. When I have excess energy to expend (particularly after a lot of stimulating reading, when I feel a sense of connection and order), I enjoy flapping my arms and pushing air out of my  teeth in a soft giggle. It would just be so liberating if I could move past my fear of other peoples’ reactions and run and jump outside whenever I feel like it. We allow kids the privilege, so why do we judge if this same behaviour is seen in adults? Am I the only one who wants to be free, or, as I highly suspect, are there other 30 year old’s who also want to run with the wind?.  I love this quote by Mel Brooks: ”if you’re alive you’ve got to flap your arms and legs, you’ve got to jump around a lot, for life is the very opposite of death, and therefore you must at the very least think noisy  and colourfully, or you’re not alive”.

 

Cognitive assessment

In February this year  (2018) my IQ was tested using  the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale. I had asked to be assessed because I wanted to have an up to date profile of my strengths and weaknesses. I had previously been assessed using a battery of different tests between the age of 9 and 11, and the results of these assessments had highlighted a significant discrepancy between my verbal (99-111, high average) and non verbal (58-74),  ability.

I enjoyed taking part in the adult IQ test, and eagerly awaited the results, which I received in April, 2018. I was expecting that there would still be some discrepancy between the scales, but I was taken aback by the magnitude of the discrepancy, which was even greater than when I was a kid. My verbal IQ had shot up to 138, with a range from 131 to as high as 142, but my non verbal IQ had only slightly increased, with a total score of 69 and a range from 66-79, which suggests an extremely low average range of intellectual functioning. Therefore, the report highlighted that my verbal abilities ”are much better developed than…perceptual reasoning, working memory and processing speed abilities”. Working memory is in the borderline range of intellectual functioning, while processing speed is in the extremely low range of intellectual functioning.  Verbal abilities, by contrast, are in the very superior range of intellectual ability and are above those of 99% of my peers.

Interestingly, my strongest result in the non verbal test was block design, which was my weakest score when I was a kid. But in general the scores were still very low, and the report explains that this means I will ”find it difficult to organise visual information so that it is meaningful”, and will have ”difficulty with information presented in the form of shapes or patterns for example, complex diagrams… In addition it may result in difficulty ”reading” facial expressions”.

The report says that working memory refers to the ”ability to sustain attention, concentrate and exert mental control”, and that I performed better than 6% per cent of my peers, meaning that this is an area I struggle with. The working memory test involved the processing of numbers, and due to a mathematical learning difficulty I have always struggled in this area, which might partly explain why the score is so low. The report says that my scores in this area show that the processing of complex information ”may be more time consuming and more mentally tiring” for me, and that I might ”make more frequent errors on a variety of tasks and will need more time and repetition”. Processing speed is in the extremely low range of intellectual functioning, and this hinders my ability to ”process simple or routine visual material without making errors”. This explains why I often have to re-read information several times to make sense of it, and that I ”need more time to have instructions or new information explained”.

I have always found it hard to make sense of my significantly polarised strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand, my dad often called me ”clever” when I was very little because I could read so well, and because I could recite poems by Keats and other classical poets off by heart. Age 4 I would sing Keat’s ”The ode to Autumn” in the reading corner at school, and I could read aloud incredibly fast while the other kids were still learning how to put sentences together. Yet I could not recite the alphabet, struggled to understand the plot of what I was reading, had no number sense, and struggled with some motor tasks.  Despite the fact that I could read books 5 years ahead of my chronological age, I was kept back on level 1 because of my very poor comprehension. I was always put in the ”slow learner” group at school, and needed a lot of support from teaching assistants. Increasingly I felt not very competent, and was given the label ”special needs”, which carries a lot of stigma.

I always needed a lot of support from my parents to keep me organised and to complete homework. I felt stupid and non academic compared to the ”bright” and academic achievers in my year, who got all the praise from the teachers, and also had lots of friends. In contrast I was often alone, and only made my first peer group friend when I was 9. This girl was also in the slow stream and her mum knew my mum, and her brother was in my brother’s year, so play dates were often arranged. The times when I was friends with her were the best days of my life, but we went our separate ways at secondary school, and by this point I was both completely friendless and completely reliant on my parents to stay afloat at school.

The cognitive assessment has shown what I knew but could not fully accept: I do have a store of high intelligence. It was hard for me to feel intelligent growing up because of my severe non verbal processing disability. To be incredibly able on the one hand but very disabled on the other is confusing at best and soul destroying at worst. Because of my high verbal IQ, I managed to compensate to some extent as a teenager, and I passed all my GCSE’s apart from maths and art (failed art because I did not understand the coursework). I would not have done so well, though, were it not for my parent’s coaching and scripting of what I should write in essays, but I also drew on my excellent long term rote memory for exams.

I became much more academically able and independent during my A levels, and only got extensive support with English from my dad, who was an English teacher. No one had expected me to do A levels, let alone go on to study history at my local university, where I graduated with an upper 2:1. I received no academic support at all during my degree, but my mum continued to help me with organisation, by keeping all my files neat and tidy. Academically I am a very late developer, but can now write good essays, and understand complex and abstract arguments.

Having such an uneven cognitive profile means that, although I can use long words and have a good understanding of complex topics, I struggle to multi-task, prioritise my work load, and break tasks down, so I often feel overloaded with information. On a practical level, I can’t work because of my difficulty processing non verbal information, and I rely on a lot of support from my support workers and dad in order to function. Yet I can do well in areas that I’m interested in, such as cooking at my own pace in my own kitchen, and I can cope so long as the task is familiar and routine. It can be frustrating that I can’t always put my high verbal intellect to use, but I can still write my blogs, produce videos, and now again deliver talks, which give my life meaning and which I really enjoy. There is a neurological reason for my difficulties, and hopefully the results of this assessment can be used to show people that just because I can appear so able, it does not mean that I can function well on what might appear to be simple tasks. I am a whole mixture of extreme strengths and extreme weaknesses, but I will try and focus on my strengths.

Sensory in-depth analysis

Sensory processing involves the ability to take in, organize and make sense of the different kinds of sensations received by the brain. It has been estimated that around 90 per cent of people with autism experience over and/or under sensitivity in at least one sense, and that this will have a significant impact on their ability to function and make sense of the world around them. The latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual has included sensory issues in the criteria for an autism diagnosis, in order to reflect how frequently the sensory environment impacts people with ASC.

Non autistic people, on average,  are good at organizing information from their senses. Their brains ”tune out” or ”filter” information so that they can focus on what is relevant in any given situation. This process is mostly done unconsciously, allowing them, for example, to carry on with their work despite the distant sound of a lawnmower or the slight smell of someone’s aftershave.  According to the theory, autistic people have over connected brains, which means that the world is super intense and they are less able to adapt or become habituated to an environment over time.  Every single sensory input is consciously processed, meaning that the person might experience severe distraction and anxiety. This theory also interlinks with the fact that synaesthesia, a condition where input from one sense is experienced simultaneously by another, for example seeing colour when hearing someone talk,  is more common in autism.

In autism all the sensory input competes for attention, meaning that the brain is flooded with information, resulting in a state of sensory or information overload. In this state the autistic person can find it harder to focus on a relevant channel of sensory information, for example someone talking to them, because other ”background” information can interfere with their attention.  I might be distracted by a baby crying, a conversation near by, or the smell of cigarette smoke.  Eye contact, and even the whole face,  can also be very uncomfortable because of a heightened visual sense. I find it much easier to pay attention to what someone is saying if I don’t have to simultaneously look at their face.If the other person is not aware of the autistic person’s difficulty, they might make the mistake of assuming that the autistic person is uninterested, bored, or being rude. In fact it is likely that the autistic person is trying very hard to focus, but is experiencing a lot of anxiety.  Because people with ASC may have longer neural pathways to process the information, or very slow processing speed, it can take the person with ASC longer to  make sense of and respond to their environment. I might need to have instructions repeated several times before being able to understand or take meaning from it, because, as highlighted in a recent cognitive assessment, my processing speed is in the extremely low range of intellectual ability, despite my extremely high verbal intelligence.

It is important to remember that each autistic person is unique in terms of their sensory profile, or what sensory differences they experience.  As no two autistics are the same, one person’s sensory joy will be another’s nightmare. To reflect this diversity, sensory experiences are often categorised as either hyper or over and hypo or under sensitive, and many autistics are both hyper and hypo sensitive, sometimes even within the same sense. For example, in some contexts they might be over sensitive to noise, while they might barely register the noise on another day or context. They might even crave loud music, flashing lights and other extreme sensations, despite being oversensitive at other times.  Generally speaking I am more hyper sensitive than hyposensitive, and my main sensory issue is unpredictable noise, particularly when I am trying to concentrate on another activity.  In my case sensory issues heavily overlap with the other autism traits of a need for routine, predictable environments, and my intense interests. For example, I love reading to the extent that this activity dominates my life, and I have a strong need to read every morning for at least two hours. From the moment I get up I feel stressed, worrying whether or not there will be noise from the neighbours or construction work outside that might interfere with my ability to focus on the book I am currently reading and need to complete.  I try and cope by playing white noise through my headphones, which helps because the noise is steady and predictable, and has the effect of muting the jarring, chaotic noise from outside. However, because my ears are so sensitive, I can still pick up this noise, such as a neighbour’s toilet flushing upstairs, water in the pipes, or random footsteps above me. Every time there is a noise I experience a painful spasm in my stomach, and I have to read the sentence all over again, as I lose all sense of meaning. Likewise, I struggle to sleep if there is any noise, no matter how gentle the noise may be, and have had to resort to sleeping with fingers in my ears because unfortunately ear plugs have not helped me. Consequently I am often at least slightly tired, which has the adverse effect of making me even more sensitive to noise, and so a vicious cycle is created.

I am also quite sensitive to light, and very bright sunshine or florescent lighting can make me more tired or overstimulated, and this can also affect my sleep if there is any light infiltration from street lights outside.

However, my hypersensitivity is not uniform because in some contexts I can endure noise without being too affected by it. I can cope with sitting in certain cafes, despite the noise from coffee machines around me, because I expect cafes to be noisy, I am in control, and there is a clear escape route. I can also cope better if my other senses are not being overwhelmed. For example, if I was standing up in a crowded room, I wold quickly become overloaded because I would have movement and touch to contend with as well as just noise. There has recently been some research carried out that has highlighted a strong link between sensory sensitivities and difficulty handling uncertainty, carried out by Pawan Sinha ,professor of vision and computational neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His research showed that making the sensory environment more predictable can be as effective if not more so than simply reducing all sensory input, although of course this will vary for each individual.

With some sensory stimuli I crave stimulation because of being hyposensitive. As a child I was very hyperactive, and although as an adult I am more sedentary, I often like to jump and flap or move my body in particular ways, in order to feel alive and stimulated. Unfortunately, due to negative reactions from other people, I have learnt to repress a lot of my energy, which can result in tension and increased anxiety. As I will talk about later, I also enjoy eating and seek out strong flavours. However, other autistics might have the opposite profile and experience a lot of food aversion and consequently have quite a limited diet.

As briefly mentioned, sensory issues can be experienced differently even within the same person, depending on different factors, such as tiredness, the weather, location, and the degree of predictability and familiarity. So, for example, because visiting the clothing store H&M every Monday was part of my routine for several months, I could endure what might appear to be a very unfriendly autistic environment. I could endure the harsh lighting and noise better in this environment because I was in control, and I was completely focused on looking at all the clothes, which had become one of my interests. In another context, for example if that was my work environment or living quarters, I would very likely meltdown and not be able to function at all. Therefore, if there is order within the sensory experience, it is possible that the autistic person will be more comfortable than if the sensory world is unpredictable and not connected to their interests.It is impossible to generalise about what might work for all autistic people because we’re individuals and we can also change over time.

While there are exceptions, the sensory profile of non autistic people is usually fairly balanced and it is unlikely that their senses will cause them any major difficulty.  Conversely it is common for autistic people to experience super intensity in at least one sense, and in some cases nearly all the senses are affected.

Recently it has been theorised in the Intense World Theory of autism, coined  in 2007 by the neuroscientists Kamila and Henry Markram, that autism is the consequence  of a supercharged brain that makes the world painfully intense and the behaviours an autistic might engage in, such as withdrawing from social contact, are coping strategies for avoiding the intense feelings. The theory suggests that autism is first and foremost a sensory processing difference, and that the social difficulties are not primary but secondary. The theory makes a lot of sense to me because I do see, hear, feel, think and remember too much, too deeply, and because of the rush of information I can’t prioritise it and struggle to relate to the world and people because I’m in a constant state of anxiety. Far from it being the case that most autistics are oblivious to other people and are disconnected from the world, it is likely that they are too aware of their environment and the feelings of other people but struggle to comprehend the information, and so everything around them is experienced as chaotic and impenetrable noise. The intense world theory also suggests that behaviours such as rocking and other repetitive movements that some autistic people engage in help to bring some degree of safety and calm to the person’s anxiety  filled life, by providing the person with a sense of control and order. I feel much less anxious when I am allowed to rock  or pace, and it’s important that people don’t judge this behaviour negatively because this can encourage the autistic to mask or hide their coping strategies, resulting in even more anxiety. The intense world theory argues that autism is essentially and inner experience of chronic anxiety, which may be visible or invisible, depending on what strategies the person has developed to deal with their discomfort.

Although we often speak about sensory difficulties in autism, it is important to understand that the sensory world can also be experienced positively. For example, in moments where the visual sense is hypersensitive,the autistic person might be moved to a state of euphoric joy when they look at a perfect picture or piece of architecture. For example, I often visit the small  town of Arundel, which has several antique parlors. The beauty of the varied objects in the room was  overwhelming and intoxicating, but I also felt a rush of positive energy and joy in the face of such perfection. I also have synaesthesia, the sensory mingling which I touched on earlier. In my case this means that days of the week, months of the year, words, and numbers are all intensely coloured and are felt as having spatial locations, and this partly explains my intense love of words and reading. My need for taste stimulation ties into my strong interest in food, nutrition, and cooking. I love eating good food at particular times of the day, and the sensations are extremely comforting and bring great satisfaction to my life.

In terms of strategies for helping the autistic person, first of all think about methods of communication. For example, meeting in person might be too overstimulating, and so they might prefer phone or email contact. Others, however, might hate speaking on the phone because of the ringing sound, or they might not like email because of the distracting light from the computer. Get to know the person and find out what works best for them.

Think about how  your environment might impact the autistic person. Myself and many other autistic people struggle to concentrate in noisy environments. When I attended an autism event this year, I became very distracted when the lady sitting behind me kept moving about, and I had to constantly ask the speaker to repeat what they were saying, before I finally decided to move seats.  And at a tea room I regularly visit, I sometimes find the pendulum lights very distracting and this means I have to look down or close my eyes, if I cannot move elsewhere.  Bear in mind that noise, light or smells that might not affect a non autistic person can be torture for an autistic, so think about how much perfume you are wearing, how, how cluttered the room is, the acoustics, whether or not there are any distracting patterns on the walls or carpet, or whether the person might be distracted by the fan or electrical equipment. You could get creative and think about any positive sensory experiences that might help that person to concentrate, such as allowing them sensory breaks where they can jump up and down, if they crave movement stimulation, or they might find that listening to extremely loud rock music helps them to filter out distractions.

Sensory overload can sometimes get so intense that the person meltsdown. In this scenario the best thing you can do is to remain calm, find out if you can relocate elsewhere, and talk quietly and slowly. Relaxation tools such as stress balls,  high intensity exercise (if they are hposensitive and crave input), reading, or sitting in a quiet and dark room for a while, depending on the person, could help.

To round up, in autism sensory issues can significantly impact upon a person’s life, often negatively but sometimes positively as well. Autistic people can struggle to pay attention, learn and socialise in situations that do not take into account their sensory needs. By trying as much as possible to make the environment as friendly as possible for that particular individual, you can make a world of difference in that person’s life and their ability to function in this very confusing world.

 

 

Dog phobia

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Image may contain: one or more people, dog and outdoor

I have been scared of dogs for as long as I can remember, although I’ve been told there was a time when I had no fear at all, and positively enjoyed having dogs race around me.

I’m not sure precisely when I developed a fear of dogs, but I do recall being on holiday in Devon, when I was very small, and passing a house where a white terrier yapped at me.  My mum was also very nervous by nature, and often on our country walks she would turn round when a frisky dog approached, while my dad remained nonchalantly unruffled. Alas, I took after my mum in the disposition stakes, and my dad’s lack of fear failed to offset my nerves.

My phobia worsened with age, despite the fact that I had a very loving relationship with my own adorable Welsh collie/Welsh spaniel cross, Jessie, who was part of my life until I was 15 years old.  I loved Jessie with all my heart, and spent hours talking to her about my day as if she were another person. I particularly liked to burrow my nose into her soft, sweetly scented cheeks, because the smell was heavenly. I was often on the floor with Jessie, tickling her tummy and feeling her warmth.

People are sometimes surprised that I am so scared of other peoples’ dogs when I grew up with one. But this touches on a key aspect of my phobia: the unknown. I am scared of  stranger’s dogs because they are unpredictable, I don’t know their nature, and they  might invade my space or, worse still, touch me. Conversely, ”Jessie baby”, as I affectionately called her, was as much a part of the furniture at home as my mum, dad and younger brother were. I knew her nature, she was predictable, and I had bonded with her as she was in my world from the cradle onward.

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Another misconception about my phobia is the idea that I don’t like dogs. In fact, I am quite interested in the canine species, and can admire the beauty of certain breeds of dog from a distance. I can form bonds with individual dogs that I have been introduced to over time, and even lose my phobia. Unfortunately, however, this does not generalise to other dogs, because they are still ”the unknown”.

Some people can be very unsympathetic toward people with dog phobias. They assume that because their dog is friendly, the person should not be scared. But this attitude fails to understand the nature of phobias. For example, a person who is scared of spiders (one of the most common phobias of all), will be scared regardless of knowing rationally that in the UK, most spiders are not poisonous or at least are very unlikely to bite. Likewise, I can be scared of a dog even if it’s owner has reassured me that it’s friendly or, even worse, that  it’s ”just a dog”, as one very uncaring man told me about his staffie.  A friendly dog might still be unpredictable in its behaviour, it might still touch me, and the fear is of an irrational nature that is immune to rational analysis and knowledge. Phobias cannot be reasoned with, but understanding goes a long way, and can even help the person build trust and slowly become less fearful around dogs. For example, a lovely lady in Arundel, at a cafe, was very  understanding when I told her that I had a dog phobia, and would she please not sit too close to me with her terrier . She took the dog to one side, but also explained that her dog was very friendly. This was far more helpful than saying, ”oh, he’s very friendly, he won’t hurt you”, while simultaneously letting the dog run amok around me. By keeping the dog at a safe distance while telling me about the dog’s gentle nature, I felt I could trust both the owner and the dog, and I even stood quite close to the dog (which was very cute) as I thanked the owner for being so understanding. The ladies’ responsible acknowledgement of my fear actually helped me become less phobic, if only towards her own dog. I wish that other dog owners would also be this responsible, instead of assuming that anyone who is  scared of their dog is somehow not worthy of any respect. My question to them is, what are you scared of? Most humans are very afraid of at least one thing, and would they like it if I showed them no respect in the face of their own fear?