Monday, 28 October 2013

Monday Muster

Happy Monday, dear ones.  Have a stunning play of light and water by Paul Bica:


There are a few older pieces in today's roundup of interesting stuff, but they're still relevant and interesting.

Like Straight White Male is the lowest difficulty setting there is, a smashing look at privilege by John Scalzi, using gaming starting stats as an analogy.  If you're trying to introduce someone to the concept of privilege in a way that doesn't make them react with "how dare you say I have privilege just because I'm a straight white cis neurotypical!  As if I had any control over that!  Don't you know how hard my life's been?!" this could be it.

Four in five disabled Australians have not been visited by friends or family in the last three months.  More than half haven't had a phone call in that time.  Almost one in five have had no social contact with another human being in the last quarter.

This is not good enough, and a sign that something is very, very sick and wrong in our community.  Read more and continue the discussion on ABC Ramp Up.

Steven Coventry is crowdfunding a project to bring his collection of autistic art to Australia.  He's looking for $2,000 to stage an exhibition during next April's Autism Awareness Month, and at time of writing has raised $300.  If you're inclined to drop a few bob into his hat, you'll find his campaign here.

Barb Cook's shared her story of being diagnosed with Aspergers as an adult with Women's Weekly magazine.  It's well worth a read, and for once the comments section isn't full of shit either.  Speaking of Barb, her and partner Paul are off on an around-Australia motorcycle adventure, filming a documentary called Autism All Grown Up.  It's going to look at the lives of autistic adults, and pull no punches:

"We will delve into the areas of those who live on the streets, those who are stuck on welfare and live on the poverty line, what is the prevalence of those on the spectrum living in caravan parks, take a look at drug and alcohol abuse, gambling, addictions, suicide, abuse cases, sex workers, pornography, the gay/lesbian community, psychiatric institutions, employment, the prison and justice system, motorcycle clubs, aged care... You name it, the stuff you will most likely hardly ever hear about and quite often people don’t want to hear it. But it happens every day around Australia."

Here's another old one, but relevant: not only is it by my ongoing middle aged British man-crush James May, but it's about obsessions, something I've been thinking a lot about lately.  His thesis is that everyone has something that could be described as a "special interest", only the subject matter differs.  Some might be associated with autistic people (like the stereotypical bollocks about trains and maths) whereas others - like sport, booze and cars - are accepted as normal.  James explores that through the differences, and similarities, between himself and partner in crime Oz Clarke:

"With the best will in the world, I’m just a bit of a drunk. I enjoy drinking, I like the taste of wine and the belief that, after a bottle or two, I am an avant garde composer at the piano. I believe that the function of alcohol is largely to help shy and possibly ugly people to meet each other and have sex.

"But Oz is actually a wine enthusiast and connoisseur. He likes to look at gravel in vineyards. He likes to stand on a hill and think about how the wind and temperature dictate the rate of grape ripening and the effect that has on fruit flavours and acidity. He likes wine labels, wine corks and the boxes wine is shipped in, and knows everything about them...  Oz is, by any normal person’s standards, a wine bore.

" his 120-year-old face I see a tragic mirror of myself, another bore merely immersed in a different subject. One of the wine makers we visited drove an old Citroen DS and I discovered I could talk about it, uninterrupted, for nearly half an hour."

Citroen DS
photo by Michael Gil

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Consumer Directed Care: better days are coming

"Consumer Directed Care" is a phrase we're going to hear more and more in relation to disability services in Australia.  This, if it comes to pass the way it's intended, will be fantastic news.

It's about a change in the way funding for disability services work.  Rather than funding being tied to service providers, it'll instead be tied to consumers.  That's us.

For instance, at the moment a particular organisation might be given a particular bucket of money to provide a particular service to a particular demographic.  If you're a disabled person (or elderly, since there's a lot of this going on in aged care too) it's a matter of finding a local service which lines up with your particular needs.  If there is one.  If there isn't, sucks to be you.

It does suck, because often there are programs that would be really helpful for Aspies, but we don't qualify because we're not the demographic that service was set up to help.  A living skills course for people with intellectual disability might be really handy for other people struggling with self-care, for instance, but if you don't have an intellectual disability you're not eligible for the program.  Similarly I know of a program that does fantastic things getting people with mental illness engaged with society and where appropriate into employment, but autism isn't a mental illness so we don't get to play there either, even though that's a massive area of need for the autistic community.

However, under Consumer Directed Care, that all changes.  Instead of that money being allocated to a service provider, who has a plan for how best to spend it, it goes to us, the consumer.

That doesn't mean we literally get a nice fat cheque.  But it does mean we get to decide which organisation we deal with, and what sort of services we need.  We get to have a personalised, tailored plan drawn up between us, our carers if we have them, and our service provider(s), that lays out what outcome we're looking for, how we're going to achieve that, and who's going to do what to make it happen.  It gets reviewed down the track to see if it's working.  And if it's not, hopefully you'll be able to fire your care provider and take your business elsewhere.

So if a service provider doesn't offer anything useful to us, they don't see our money.  If they want our money they have to provide services we actually want and need.

And in a world where all too many autism services begin and end with preschoolers and ignore us once we grow up, anything that encourages meaningful, useful services has to be a good thing.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Rock on

Rocking is a well known stim, but it took me a while to realise I do it.

I'd seen rocking frequently described as "back and forth" or similar wording, and in my literal mind that means a forwards-and-back motion.  I didn't twig that my gentle side-to-side motion is also rocking, just on a different axis.

That's how I roll.  Er, rock.
So I did a highly unscientific study by asking on Tumblr who rocked which way.  Here are the results so far:

Forwards and back: 3
Side to side: 2
Both: 9.  Most people mentioned that they do the two in response to different emotional states, and others mentioned that they rock forwards and back while sitting, and side to side while standing.
Both, and also diagonally: 1
Other rocking-type movements: 2.  Such as rotating back and forth at the hips.  I find myself doing a sort of figure-of-eight bobbing action sometimes, which probably falls into this category too.
Doesn't rock: 1, but this is probably a massive under-representation of non-rockers.  I'd assume a lot of people who don't rock didn't bother answering, since the question was loaded towards those who did.

So, what does this teach us?  Well, nothing, obviously, with a sample size of a dozen or so.  But it does illustrate just how varied an apparently simple action can be.

I think we need to stop talking about stimming in terms of specific behaviours, like rocking and hand flapping, and instead talk about when and why it happens and what it means.  Because if you have an unusual stim that isn't on the list, that doesn't mean it's not a stim.  Similarly something that is a recognised stim doesn't always have to be: there are all sorts of reasons one might flap their hands, after all.

I once had someone ask me for a list of Twitter's hashtags - as in, a complete list of all of them.  There is no such list, because they're constantly evolving, sometimes in a matter of moments, and there are potentially more hashtags than actual tweets.  Thinking about stimming just as a list of particular bodily movements is a bit like asking for a list of hashtags - it does rather miss the spirit of the thing.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Monday Muster

Happy Monday dear ones, have some accurate-as-ever xkcd:

I sometimes want to hunt down people who design sites with autoplaying video or "background" music and demonstrate just how startling and unpleasant it is if you already have sensory issues to start with.  It's like being hit unexpectedly over the head with a cricket bat.  Don't do that.  Especially if you then expect me to buy something from you.

Does the spoon theory work for you?  I use it, even though I'm not totally comfortable with it.  (For a start, it was conceived to describe chronic illness, and I worry that I'm stepping on toes by co-opting it to talk about autism.  And secondly, unless you know the history behind it, "spoons" doesn't give you any clues - you couldn't work out for yourself what it meant if you heard it in passing conversation, they way you might be able to with Karla Fisher's tokens analogy.  On the other hand, if you say you're "low on spoons", in some circles people will understand what you mean, which is a big plus.)

Luna Lindsey has an interesting adaptation of the spoons theory for autism, which pulls together not just energy itself but processing time (a big one for a lot of us) and brings in a gaming in-joke as well.  If you ever hear the phrase "reticulating splines" on this blog, you'll know who I stole it from.

Autistic Big Bro Gerard Atienza has added his voice to the discussion about "person with autism" versus "autistic person".   He raises the point - oft raised by autistic writers, but not often heard by the wider community - that it really is best to ask what terminology the person you're talking to or about prefers rather than just assuming it's one or the other.  The example Gerard used was when he and another student were discussing person- versus identity-first language in an interview:

"I asked him: “What do you preferred to be called: a ‘person with autism,’ or an ‘autistic person’?” Patty goes: “I prefer being called ‘autistic,’ because that is what I am.” After the interview, his Mom, an autism advocate herself, told me that she was surprised. She happened to be an advocate of person-first language... and she admitted that she haven’t even asked her son what he wanted to be called."

On the Autism Women's Network, Jean Winegardner's been writing about acceptance, and questioning why autistic people are expected to bend over backwards to fit in, in a society which does precious little to fit us.

"Why is the onus on the disabled to be accepted? Why is it our job to make you accept us?"

Good question.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

I love my obsessions

What's with Aspergers and obsessions?

A lot of theories about special interests by neurotypical experts concentrates on their use as a calming mechanism, something predictable and controllable that we can lose ourselves in as a means of dealing with stress and the weird, unpredictable world we live in.

Personally, I think there's more to it than that.

I do love my obsessions, but I lose myself in them because I love them, I don't love them because I can lose myself in them.  If it was just about losing yourself, it wouldn't explain why some things press my obsession buttons while other very similar ones don't.

Here's one of mine: Dangermouse.

I can talk about this for as long as you'd like.  Probably much longer than you'd like.  In fact I could probably talk specifically about this episode for the entire duration of the video.

But Count Duckula, another cartoon by the same creators, in the same style, featuring some of the same voice talent, that started as a spin-off of Dangermouse?  Nope.  I don't care for it at all.

It's a bit like how just because you fancy someone it doesn't mean you'll also fancy their brother just because they have the same genetics and/or upbringing.

There's actually more to that analogy than it first appears.  Some research shows that the brain chemicals seratonin and oxytocin appears to behave differently in autistic people, so some of us* may get less chemically-generated happiness from social encounters than one would expect. I've also read - although now that I want to link to it, I can't find the blasted thing - that we may in fact get that happy-lovely-brain-chemical goodness from our special interests as well as for people.  So if that's the case, the love analogy is pretty apt, if our special interests do to our brains what lovely schmoopy times to do neurotypical brains.

*I say 'some of us' because this 'cares more about things than people' thing has never been true for me: I care a great deal, I just express it differently and often struggle to express it at all.  I don't think it's at all fair or accurate to say that caring more for things than people is a standard autistic thing.  I also think there are plenty of neurotypical people who care much more about things than people!

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Autism is not just a boy thing

What does autism look like?

If you go by most mainstream media coverage and the photos splashed across the usual "awareness" websites, it looks like a small child who is almost always white and almost always male. But that doesn't mean white, male and prepubescent is the default state for autism.

Just as likely to be on the spectrum as that
little boy behind the sheet of shower glass
Just like heart disease, women on the spectrum can present very differently from our male counterparts.  And just like heart disease, research that mostly uses male subjects has resulted in knowledge about the condition being skewed quite heavily towards male presentation.

The official stats say there are about four males on the spectrum for every female, but I don't think that necessarily means it's four times more common in men.  Since getting a diagnosis still relies far, far too much on money, luck, and co-incidence, I think it possibly just means we're four times better at diagnosing males.

Here is a good write-up on the differences between autistic men and women, and some research findings into how the condition differs between the sexes.  And here is a case study, where an autistic girl had to wait much longer for a diagnosis than her brother who's also on the spectrum.

Women's presentations can be more subtle (insofar as anything is "subtle" if you don't know what you're looking for), but that doesn't mean we're less affected than our male counterparts.  In my experience, it just meant that my very obvious differences and difficulties were either misdiagnosed or it was assumed I was doing it deliberately for some weird reason of my own.

Want to learn more about women on the spectrum?  Find out from the source:

Blogs by women on the spectrum:
Autistic Hoya by Lydia Brown
Crazy Girl in an Aspie World by Amanda J Harrington
Disability and Representation by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg
Golden Hearted Rose by Rose
Luna Lindsey
Musings of Ade
Musings of an Aspie by Cynthia
Radical Neurodivergence Speaking by Neurodivergent K
Tiny Grace Notes by Elizabeth J "Ibby" Grace
Yes, That Too by Alyssa

Resources for women on the spectrum:
Autism Women's Network: support for women and girls on the spectrum
Women with Autism Facebook group

There are no doubt loads of excellent blogs and resources I've missed, because the internet's a big place and I don't spend as much time exploring it as I used to.  So, if you've got a suggestion to add to the list, please leave it in the comments.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Answering questions from an Aspie child's mother

During yesterday's stumbles around the internet, I ended up on this post, where the mother of a kiddo with Aspergers asks a series of questions about her child.  There's a lot I can't answer - parenting and children are very much not my thing - but some of it really sounded like me as a child, so I thought I'd try to help if I could.  This turned into something far, far too long for the comments section on her blog, so I thought I'd stick it here instead:

1. Do Aspie children tend to lie or make up outrageous stories for no reason at all?  My son does this daily and I can’t seem to break the habit. He will lie when there is absolutely no need and his stories go way out into space.

Outrageous stories? Yep, did that.  No reason? Nope, there were reasons.

For a start, it took me a lot longer than other children to really grasp the difference between fantasy and reality.  Partially it was a maturity thing, partially it was an understanding-how-the-world-works thing, and partially it was about literal mindedness - stuff I I saw on TV or read about seemed as real to me as stuff I actually experienced, so it was harder to separate fiction from fact.

Also, I had a very, very active imaginary world going on as a kid.  In real life I was bored, lonely, and didn't have much in the way of a creative outlet, so this fantasy world developed where I was a child star, with a sort of Young Talent Time meets Degrassi Junior High meets the Marx Brothers groove going on.  So sometimes, I'd talk about stuff going on in my fantasy world like it was real, and in hindsight I'm sure those around me thought I was a compulsive liar and possibly a lunatic.  I wasn't.  I just hadn't yet developed an accurate 'reality filter'.

And now that I'm grown up and have a better handle on how the world works, I'm mortified by me-as-a-child's behaviour.  But I just didn't know any better.

2. Do Aspie children get sick more often than other children?

I've heard this, but personally didn't.  I do know that my health now's not as flash as it could be, mainly because sensory issues make eating a balanced diet hard (how do I fruit?) and I have all sorts of hangups about exercise so I don't do nearly enough.

3. Do most Aspie children talk obsessively? My son gets picked on about how much he talks. He says the other kids at school won’t play with him. They say he is crazy. He said even his best friend won’t play with him anymore.  So much for making him play sports all these years so he could make friends.

Yeah, some of us do. I went through stages where I did this, and others where I barely spoke at all.  When I did, it was usually a special interests related thing: I'd just found something that was so incredibly awesome I wanted to tell everybody all about it right now.  It took a while to learn not everybody finds my special interests as fascinating as I do.

There was also a reading-other-people element: I didn't know how to tell if the other party was bored, or even realise I should be thinking about that.  Like the tall tales, now that I'm older and I know better, my past behaviour makes me cringe.

These days, I sometimes get verbal diarrhea when I'm nervous.  It can hear myself talking shit and want to stop but just can't.  It's usually when I'm out of my depth.  It feels awful, and when it's over I get very angry with myself for having done it, again, for the umpteenth time.

4. Is it extremely hard for Aspies to grow up and have families? 

It can be hard, but it can be done.  I know quite a few people on the spectrum who are or have been in romantic relationships, and quite a few who have kids.  I know one very sweet couple, both Aspies, who have two lovely little kids.  On the other hand, some of us will want that and not get it, and some of us will not even be interested in family life, for reasons that might or might not be autism related.

One helpful thing my parents did (and still do) for me is to not force the issue.  They stopped long ago asking about whether I was seeing anyone, when they were going to get grandkids, or carrying on the family name.  I'm sure they worry about me being alone after they're gone, but they've never said "hurry up and get married!"  They understand that's just something I can't make happen.

5. Do Aspie children tend to be angry? Seems my son grunts and growls about everything.  He has a look that can slice you in half. Sometimes he punches the floor or couch or even kicks things over to keep himself from hitting someone.  I don’t want him to grow up violent.

There are a lot of reasons an Aspie might be angry: social frustration, sensory overload, academic boredom, or just the regular stuff that makes anyone angry.  I've known a few Aspies who have been quite negative, to the point of imagining every random misfortune is part of a conspiracy against either them personally or Aspies in general.  I kind of understand where they're coming from.  It's easy to get sucked into that mindset of persecution when you have experienced persecution just for existing, as many of us have.   Not thinking that way is a conscious decision I've made, based on seeing how it's worked out for others, and something I have to work on.

Violence is a different thing.  Sometimes violence isn't about anger at all.  I've thrown things, broken things, and hurt myself not out of anger but out of frustration, sensory overload, and strong emotions I had no other way to process.  The frustration of needing to do something but not having the motor skills to physically do it was a big trigger for me, that usually saw the pencil or tool (and on one occasion a tape recorder) sent flying across the room.  For some people (not me) it can also be about needing the sensory feedback that comes from the impact of hitting or throwing yourself against something.

Punching a soft object doesn't mean it'll escalate to being violent with people.  If he can channel that need to wallop something into a pillow or punching bag, and get it out of his system safely, there's no reason for it to go any further.  We Are Like Your Child did a post on this very issue recently.

6. HOW DO I GET HIM OUT OF MY BED??!  I'm going crazy here. He’s 8 and I have to stay up half the night telling him to get back in his bed. If I fall into a deep sleep I wake up and he’s right here. 

I have no idea, I'm sorry.  But a lot of kids on the spectrum do have sleep trouble, and I annoyed the hell out of my parents with my constant insomnia when I was a kid.  (I still have insomnia something fierce, but at least these days the most disruptive thing I do is get up and make a cup of tea in the middle of the night.)  You've probably tried all these already, but here's a thing I did recently on sleep hygiene, in case it's of some help.

Let's hear it for earplugs

On Saturday morning, I found myself at the supermarket.  This is something I try to avoid, since it's bound to be very crowded and full of shrieky children, but last week it happened and one thing (well, two things) made it bearable:

These are your basic earplugs, available from chemists and usually less than $2 a pair.  This packet's looking a bit scruffy because it's been floating around in the bottom of my handbag for a while.  When you unwrap them, they look like this:

They're two small cylinders of foam, roughly the size of the top joint of my little finger.  The foam's very soft and has lots of tiny air pockets, which means it shrinks and deforms when you squeeze it, and then once the pressure is removed it slowly returns to its original shape.  This is the key to its success: you squeeze them down in to little thin things, like this:

This one had already started expanding again by the time I took the photo
And then pop them in your ears.  As it expands, it moulds itself to your earhole.  The pressure's noticeable, but not uncomfortable, a bit putting the tip of your little finger gently in your ear.

They don't block out all sound, they just dull background noise from a roar to a murmur, and take the edge off very loud or sharp sounds.  You can still hear people talking directly to you while you're wearing them, and other essential sounds like warning sirens get through as well.

I could not go grocery shopping without these babies.  They're fantastic for dulling the shrieking children, squeaking wheels, humming lights and general aural chaos of shopping centres.  I also use them for loud concerts and events - I don't think I'd have survived Top Gear Live without them!

On the downside, they do make your own internal noises much louder.  While I was shopping my footsteps echoed through my body, and when I started tapping my teeth in time to the song stuck in my head (which is just a thing I do) that was really loud as well.  Talking with them in sounds very odd indeed, and eating with them is fairly well impossible unless you really like chomping, smacking noises.

They're really, really useful things to have, and I always keep a couple of pair in my handbag along with the rest of my emergency supplies: band aids, anti-tummy-bug pills, travel sickness pills, and hopefully paracetamol if I ever remember to restock those.

When I had long hair (or if I'm wearing a long wig) I can bring my hair forwards so it covers my ears and the earplugs aren't even visible.  But I usually don't bother: it hurts nobody that I wear them, and the reasons why are nobody's business but mine.  I don't care about looking normal.  I care about being comfortable and getting stuff done.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Monday Muster

Welcome to Monday, dear ones.  I'm still working in radioland for another couple of weeks, so my morning starts feel a bit like this:

157/365  (+1)
Photo by Martinak15 on Flickr
If you're job hunting, you might find Autisticook's series on job interviews interesting.  It goes through clothes and grooming, and making a decent first impression at job interviews.

You know the phrase "use your words"?  It's not very helpful if you don't HAVE words at that moment, and can invalidate all the very real non-verbal forms of communication. Neurodivergent K has dissected that phrase on Radical Neurodivergence Speaking:

"'Use your words' holds my needs hostage to performance of typicality and says I do not deserve to have my needs met if I cannot make that performance work. That is what you are saying when you tell me to use my words."

Executive dysfunction kinda sucks.  It can really get between what you want or need to do, and what you're actually able to get done.  Autistic group blog We Are Like Your Child has looked at this, focussing on how it can screw up a student's ability to manage things like homework:

"I had no trouble whatsoever grasping the academic content. It was not a challenge. Getting the work done was, because the attitude was still 'if you're so d*mn smart just do it... what are you stupid or something?'"

The same time I was writing about trying to get a decent night's sleep, there was some research coming out exploring the links between the severity of autistic symptoms and sleep (or the lack thereof).  You'll find the spiel here.   The research doesn't appear to have looked at sensory dysregulation, which I personally find unfortunate since that's the first and most obvious thing to be affected when I'm not sleeping well, but it's promising to see some research that could lead to something of use and help to autistic people.  The idea that we're not at our best when we're sleep-deprived and exhausted is hardly revolutionary, but having some concrete data to support that can only help it be taken seriously.

Speaking of sleeping, before the industrial revolution came along with its artificial lights and associated paraphernalia, people didn't sleep in one eight hour slab.  Rather, they'd sleep for three or four hours, wake up for a couple of hours to read, tend the fire, pray, meditate, get it on, or even go visiting, then crash again for another couple of hours shuteye.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Sleep hygiene resources

Sleep hygiene is a fancy term for the stuff you do to better your chances of getting a good night's sleep.

I have a long, long history with insomnia, and quite a few other Aspies have mentioned it as well.  Part of that probably is related to Aspergers itself - when you're in the rush of a new obsession it's really hard to switch off, and inertia (where you have trouble starting a task, or more relevant to this scenario stopping once you've started) can make the sheer mechanics of getting to bed at a reasonable hour difficult.

PICTORIAL REVIEWBut a lot of it's not about autism per se.  It's the human condition: we think, therefore we worry and replay situations over and over in our heads thinking 'what if?'  The entirely arbitrary eight hour working day doesn't always leave enough time to get all the non-work stuff done, and one of the first things to be sacrificed is sleep.  It's about having access to artificial light, which our bodies aren't adapted to cope with and which throws our sleeping patterns out of whack.  And perhaps it's also the stress of being un- or under-employed and the financial issues that brings, of being bullied or ostracised, of lacking a support network or knowing that you're going to die alone, all things many autistic people have to think about.  No wonder we can't sleep.

On the other hand, I need a lot of sleep to function at my best.  If I don't get enough, everything slides - my sensory disregulation gets worse, social stuff bewilders me even more than usual, and my motor skills and balance desert me entirely.  Maybe it's because it takes me so much more energy to cope with all the extra sensory input and consciously working out social stuff that comes to others instinctively, but I get exhausted much, much more quickly than a neurotypical person in the same situation.

If that sounds like you as well, here are some tips and resources that might help:

How do you know if you're tired, anyway?  Don't scoff - not being able to identify feelings is an autistic thing, and that applies to physical feelings as well as emotional ones.  (As per sample.)  These are signs that I've found mean I'm tired:
  • Headache or feeling of pressure behind the eyes or the bridge of the nose
  • Increased sensory sensitivity, especially sound (sound is a particular problem for me at the best of times)
  • Hand-eye co-ordination and motor skills worsen
  • Closing your eyes for a moment feels really good
  • In extreme cases, eyes start closing or half-closing of their own accord, and head may start nodding
  • In really extreme cases, you nod off for a moment

Listen to your body clock: Once you've worked out how 'tired' feesl, don't go to bed if you're genuinely not feeling it - you'll just reinforce the habit of lying awake for ages.  Similarly, don't put off going to bed if you're tired just because you think it's too early or you've got things to do.  Do it when you wake up - it'll go faster and you'll make fewer mistakes.

Keep regular sleeping patterns: This is a really, really hard one for me, because by nature I stay up late into the night and wake at about ten in the morning, but while I'm working I just can't do that.  But if you can stick to a regular routine - rather than waking up at 7:30 on weekdays and then lying in til 10 on weekends like a certain blogger - your body will have a better chance of being able to sleep well when it's supposed to.

Sort out your sleeping environment: Most of us can't just buy a new mattress or air conditioning on a whim, but there'll probably be something you can do to improve your nest.  Sleeping areas that aren't dark enough are a big problem for a lot of people - can you close the door, pull the curtains, hang a blanket or blackout curtains over the window if there's a lot of light coming in from outside?  Consider switching off things with digital displays or lights - or if it's bothersome to turn them off, a blanket or towel over them or some gaffer tape over the LED should block out the light.

Too hot?  Too cold?  One of my problems is that I really love the pressure from heavy blankets, but I also hate being hot - so at the moment I spend much of my night juggling the need for weight with the need to not overheat.  I really need to find some sort of non-warming weighted blanket.

When I was living in my own place, what made a difference for me was taking the legs off my bed.  I can't entirely explain it, but I think sleeping closer to the ground made me feel more secure.  I went through my 'wants to have a bunk bed and sleep on the top' phase, but really I'm much happier sleeping at floor level.

Get light at the right times: Getting enough sunlight through the day, but not getting too much artificial light close to bedtime, can help regulate your sleep cycle.  That can be as simple as changing to dimmer lightbulbs, and not watching TV or using devices with backlit screens before bed.  More on this here.

Don't exercise before bedtime: Exercise is good for you, but no closer than three hours to bedtime.  You'll be feeling all energised and have endorphins and what not going on, and that's not conducive to nodding off.

Don't go to bed on an empty stomach or a full bladder: they'll both either stop you getting to sleep in the first place, or wake you up at some ungodsly hour.

Booze doesn't work: It might relax you enough to help you drop off, but it'll screw up your sleep pattern so you don't feel properly refreshed when you wake up.  Plus hangovers.  Avoid cigarettes, and caffeine and other stimulants, for the same reasons.

For more information
The Better Health Channel
Sleep hygiene instructions
How to sleep better
Twelve simple steps to improve your sleep
Sleep Health
The National Sleep Foundation