Saturday, 28 June 2014

It's OK to be an ugly duck

The story of the ugly duckling has been solace for generations of late bloomers and picked-on nerdlings.  It’s an 1843-vintage “it gets better” for the awkward, the spotty, the wearers of dated hand-me-downs and those consistently called on last for team sports.  But when you stop to think about the message behind the story, it’s really pretty depressing.

At the end of the story the ugly duckling leaves behind its past as a gangly avian lint-bunny, and moults into an adult swan to take its true place in society. All the various barnyard animals that made its cygnethood miserable are left with swan egg on their faces as the lumpen little thing they mocked transforms into something regal and glorious.

But the duckling having been a misplaced swan all along means the message isn't...

Be kind to others, because everyone deserves respect regardless of their looks or abilities


Be kind to others, in case they turn out to be posh, pretty or powerful 

What if the ugly duckling had just grown up into an ugly duck?  One of those hybrid things perhaps, that are part Mallard, part Muscovy, and all wrong?  Would picking on it have been totally OK then, because it didn't grow up to be anything special?

Of course not: every creature deserves kindness, regardless of how pretty it is. 

But there's this lingering idea that if you have a disability or illness or difference, you have to be extraordinary in some way to 'earn' your humanity.  You need some metaphorical swan's feathers to offset the inconvenience of your presence or the cost of your care.  For Aspies, it might be the assumption that we all have savant skills or academic brilliance to make up for our sensory or social struggles.  Bipolar-type conditions seem to come with expectation of creativity or genius or both, and some people talk up schizophrenia as a spiritual experience.

Some people on the spectrum do have amazing abilities, conferred either by their neurology or through hard work and dedication.  And some of us don't.  Some of us are just chilling in the middle of the bell curve.  We're doing our best, but our best just happens to be unremarkable, ordinary and average.  Just like most other people's best.

And that's OK.  Because everyone matters, and everyone deserves respect and kindness.  Even the ones who don't grow up to be swans, or have a fairy godmother to shower them with nice stuff, or turn out to be a long-lost member of the royal family.

Even those of us who are just ugly ducks.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Observations on people walking in public

You're walking down the street, arms a-swinging, feet a-stepping, and all's right with the world.

Oh Gods, not this again
Then you see, up ahead, someone walking slightly but noticeably slower than your natural pace.  Probably a group of them, walking three abreast. Soon enough you've caught up to them, likely as not right where the footpath narrows and you're stuck behind them as they able along at a pace just slow enough to feel uncomfortable and unnatural.

What do you do?

Maybe you can see a potential overtaking space up ahead, so you speed up so you're close enough to be able to shoot through when the space appears, without getting so close you're right up behind them like some sort of creeping creeper who creeps.

Maybe you put on your Busy Person With Places To Be face, cough an 'excuse me', elbow through and get on your way.  Protip: this works well if you're in a suit or the sort of thing people wear while carrying briefcases.  It's a much harder move to pull off in scruffy jeans and a tour t-shirt for a band that split up in 2003.

Or maybe you pull a leaf from the book of what to do when someone else is standing in front of the supermarket shelf you want to look at.  That's the point when you feign deep interest in something on another shelf and wait for them to move so you can get to what you're after.  So, you stop for a bit to admire the display in an empty shop window or count some marigolds on a roundabout, to put some space between you and them.  Then you set off again, catch up again, stall again, set off again.

And then run into them, because while you've been scheming how to get past them you didn't notice they'd stopped to have a chat in the middle of the path.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

News and updates and random personal ramblings

Customs House, because a post this self-referential
deserves a local landmark
Things are really moving around here...

1.  I've been talking about turning this blog into a book for ages, and now there's a definite plan for that.  I've decided against a book as such, and am instead putting together some resources on specific Aspie-related topics.  They'll be a mix of new content and material from the blog, expanded and updated.  The first one is on sensory sensitivity, and will be out soon - August, with a following wind.

 2.  Work's been really surprising.  I wasn't expecting this gig to last this long - it started as a fixed-term contract - but it has and it continues and it's great and I love it.  I still have terrible panicky moments (that sometimes last for days or weeks) where I'm sure I'm hopeless and at any moment they'll realise how woeful I am and kick me down their many flights of stairs and out the door, but they're happy with what I'm doing.  I hope it lasts.

3.  I was accepted into the uni course I applied for, but I've deferred until the new year.  I'll have a better idea what's happening with work by then, plus we'll hopefully know more about the various political and financial uncertainties surrounding tertiary education.  I'm still not entirely convinced I'm cut out for the field I've chosen either, so deferring gives me six months to get over my existential crisis and figure out if I really want to go through with it.  I was when I applied, but now I'm far less sure.

4.  That campaign of getting out more and making friends that I launched back at the start of the year faltered - as you might have guessed from the way I suddenly didn't write any more about it - but things are going pretty well on that front now.  Mum and I have found a pub trivia night that doesn't suck (some of the bigger venues use really crappy over-loud PA systems with  distorted fuzzy sound that does my head right in thanks to my sensory troubles with sound) and I'm starting to put some feelers out about other stuff too.  Yes, I'm still a big bundle of anxiety and shyness and guilt and neurosis, but I'm at a point now where I can be that and still have a life.

I'm calling that a win.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

This is what my brain looks like right now

I've touched on catastrophising recently, but even though I know it's not rational or healthy I'm still doing it like I'm in training to represent Australia in the 1000 metres freak out and panic at the 2016 Olympics.

I'm self-aware enough to realise that most of what I'm freaking out about is completely baseless.  The only one who thinks I'm crap at my job is me, but in my head this becomes "the rest of the organisation just hasn't figured it out yet" rather than "maybe I'm not that crap after all".  I worry about being an unemployable lump of fail even though my resume doesn't look that bad.  I'm completely flummoxed by what to do about uni, having decided to go back to study a few days before the federal budget made that look like a less awesome ideaEspecially in the field I'd chosen.

Adding to this, I've got some damn obsessions clogging up my head and making it really hard to think and focus.  What's with special interests that are dead and buried years ago suddenly coming back and getting up in your business all over again?  I'm on a Jonathan Creek kick at the moment that, honestly, I could do without.  Fandom's great, but not when it takes up space in your brain that could be better used getting your life sorted out.

Or would I just use that extra space to find something else to freak out about?

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

The point of small talk

Yeah, nah, how about this weather?
Have you ever heard a flock of birds at dusk?

They're quite chatty as they settle into their tree for the night.  There's a great deal of squawking and carrying on, which gradually fades into a gentle chorus of back-and-forth chirps.  These are called contact calls, and it's about each member of the flock checking in, reminding and reassuring the rest of their presence.  In some species, a sudden absence of contact calls is a more serious alarm signal than a call of distress.

Some people, including quite a few people on the spectrum, dislike small talk - random chatter about the weather or sport or celebrities or how other people's kids are doing at school.  Who cares? they argue: anyone who gives a stuff about the weather can look up the forecast on the Bureau of Meteorlogy site, and everyone else has already noticed how hot it is without you pointing it out, thank you very much.  Small talk, they say, is useless and people who engage in it are vacuous sheep who should spend their time and energy more wisely.

But what if small talk is human society's contact call?

No, most of us don't really give a stuff about the weather unless we're in the middle of a cylone, snowstorm or heatwave.  And a lot of people are less interested in sport and celebrities and other people's affairs than first appearances would suggest, too.  But what if the weather or the sport or the celeb aren't the point of the conversation at all?  What if it's just about our flock chirping back and forth:

You look like one of us.  Are you one of us?

Yes. I'm one of us.  Are you one of us?

Yes, I'm one of us.  Is everything well?

Yes, everything's well.  Oh look, someone else.  Are you one of us?

And so it goes.  The weather just happens to be something that we all experience, so it's an easy chirp to start on.

Idle conversations about random inconsequential crap might feel pointless.  The subjects themselves might well be pointless.  But the conversation itself isn't.  The fact that the conversation took place, that you and they passed a few moments in contact and reassured each other of your existence and your belonging to the pack, might be the real point of the whole exercise.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Are lonely people oversharesey?

Relationships grow when we share information about ourselves - the process of "getting to know" someone is learning about their background, their beliefs, their hopes and fears and what makes them tick.  As the "getting to know" stage evolves into a closer friendship, we learn more and more about the other person and they in turn learn more and more about us.

But you can't force a friendship to develop more quickly or become closer by sharing more information sooner.  It's an organic thing: much like a growing plant sends out each new leaf on its own schedule, so that information comes out bit by bit as we get to know and trust each other.

I've had a couple of encounters with really oversharesey people in my time, both online and in the real; people who were just trying to be friendly, but came across as the bearers of too much information. (Well, with my ropey ability to read people, they may or may not have been just trying to be friendly.  But let's give them the benefit of the doubt.) Often they were people who were lonely, either due to the social shenanigans that come with autism or because they were isolated for other reasons.  I think possibly they were, consciously or not, trying to hurry along the connection-building process by sharing too much, too soon.

Some researchers from Charles Sturt University have been looking at how people who describe themselves as lonely and those who don't use Facebook differently.  They found lonely people tend to disclose more personal information about themselves (from their relationship status to their address), while the people who already feel connected are more likely to share their religious or political views.

This can be a trap for the lonely in two ways.  Firstly, oversharing usually won't make a relationship develop more quickly.  It can backfire, making you look desperate and scaring the other person away.  But perhaps more importantly, it pays to be cautious about who we trust with our personal information.  One reason the getting to know you dance is a slow one is that it's about judging whether it's safe and appropriate to trust the other person with details about yourself and your life.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Do Aspies... ?

Some Google auto-suggestions for the search "do Aspies...."

There are no definitive answer for questions like these, because Aspies are individuals rather than some sort of hivemind.  It's a bit like asking "do Queenslanders get jealous?" or "do redheads cry?" Some do, some don't, and it's hard to get any more specific than that.

But let's try...

1.  Do Aspies feel love?

We can, yes.  Successful romantic and family relationships don't always come easily to people on the spectrum because of the interpersonal shenanigans that come with the territory, but they can happen and they do happen.  Sometimes that very difficulty means that when they do happen, they're cherished all the more.

But feeling love and expressing love are two different things.  Sometimes we might struggle to identify and express what we feel, or express it in ways that the other parties can't interpret.  Trouble with emotional expression, not liking physical contact for sensory reasons, or not being good at spontaneity can all make it hard to express the love we feel.

2.  Do Aspies get jealous?

We can, yes.  A particular source of jealousy can be people to whom social graces come naturally and who are gifted at interpersonal dealings. It can be really hard to watch someone do without thinking or effort something that you struggle with every day.

Romantically, I can see the case for an Aspie who's in a relationship being a jealous partner, worried that their social skills or ability to party can't compete with NT rivals for their beloved's affections.  I can't say I've ever seen that scenario play out among the people on the spectrum I know, but it's not beyond the realms of the imagination.  (BTW, a reason is not an excuse.  Jealously at the point where it leads to things like creeping on your partner's email, giving them a hard time if a random stranger smiles at them, or trying to control who they see or talk to, is never OK regardless of your neurology.)

Then there's the question of when 'jealously' becomes indignation or outrage at very real injustices many people on the spectrum face.  For instance, the workplace participation rate for people on the spectrum is just 34%, compared to the national rate of 83%.  So a person on the spectrum who could work, wants to work, and is looking for work, but can't get a job (maybe they don't interview well, or have trouble networking) might well feel something akin to jealousy for people who've found work easily.

3.  Do Aspies cry?

We have tear ducts and emotions and hormones like everyone else, so I guess so.  Here come those differences in emotional expression again: some people on the spectrum have a 'flat effect', appearing to come across as unemotional or cold regardless of how they're actually feeling.  Sometimes the things that press our emotional buttons are on the unusual side: things you'd expect to trigger gales of laughter or a flood of tears get nothing, while something an observer might think was quite trivial can cause a massive rush of emotion.  Different things cause different emotions in different people. 

4.  Do Aspies lie?

Hells yes we can.