Taking A Break From Weekly Blogging

I love this blog and I love writing about my experiences of growing up with Aspergers Syndrome. I appreciate each and every one of my readers and followers. However, a blog post every week is beginning to mean that I need more inspiration for new ideas as I have covered so many topics already. I will therefore be taking a break from this blog for a few weeks in order to come up with fresh ideas so that I can then do another series of weekly posts on new topics I have not covered before! This has been a hard decision as I hate the feeling that I am letting my readers down by not having a blog post every week and, like everything with Aspergers, it’s now become a routine of mine to write a blog post weekly so the change in that is hard too. However, recently, I have been putting myself under a lot of pressure to find topics to write about and that’s not what I originally started blogging for. I went into blogging to educate people but also for enjoyment as well. I am giving my brain a rest so that more ideas come to me. I thank everyone for their continued support and I will be back soon!

Executive Functioning Issues In Aspergers

I have mentioned the problems caused by executive functioning issues briefly in different posts but I have not yet dedicated a whole blog post to it yet so I thought I would write about that today.

I know some of you may be wondering right now “What are executive functioning issues?” Simply put, they refer to the management of various cognitive processes such as working memory, reasoning, task flexibility, problem solving and seeing a task or process through from planning to carrying it out. That’s the scientific bit over. Now what is struggling with these functions like in everyday life?

One thing I often hear said about a lot of people with Aspergers is, “They’re so intelligent but can’t do the basics”. This is essentially what problems with executive functioning cause. Someone can have an IQ of 150 plus (for what it’s worth!) and still struggle with their cooking, cleaning and laundry or forget to have a bath for 5 days in a row. Executive functioning problems are not solely the reserve of those of us on the autistic spectrum. In fact, I used to blame my issues in this area on my dypsraxia until I realised that they are probably a result of both conditions as people with Aspergers as their only diagnosis can also struggle in this area. Executive functioning problems affect a lot of people across the neurodiverse spectrum-people with dyslexia, people with dyspraxia, people with ADHD and a vast range of neurological conditions in between.

One example I will always remember (and I’m sure my mum does too!) is learning how to write a paying in slip for cashing in cheques. I must have been taught how to do it around 20 times before I actually took it in and was able to do it successfully myself. People don’t understand why tasks can take us so much longer to complete but it’s because of this functioning deficit. Filling in the paying in slip is a very simple task for most people of my age and intelligence but I just could not get it! Once I did finally get it, I never forgot how to do it even though I don’t get paid cheques anymore!

To an extent, I can understand where other people’s frustrations come from in regard to the problems executive functioning issues can cause me. As I have mentioned in this blog before, I was able to read complicated medical books at the age of 6 but I could not dress myself at the same age-not because I was physically unable to do so (although I was extremely uncoordinated) but because the sequence just wouldn’t work itself out in the right order in my head. This frustrated the people around me, I’m sure! Similarly, my weak short term memory often frustrates people especially because my long term memory is very good. People don’t understand how I can remember every word of conversations that were held years ago but can’t remember all the items I go to the shop to buy. I can say to myself right before I go into the shop that I need to get some shampoo and will walk out of the shop 2 minutes later with no shampoo! I admit that I am no saint and I sometimes become extremely annoyed with habits that are the result of poor executive functioning skills-poor time management, for example. I cannot abide lateness in either myself or other people. Similarly, I hate clutter. I am not saying that I am the most organised person ever because I’m not but I like to hide anything that makes the place look untidy!

I often get overwhelmed by tasks. When I need to do something such as tidy my room, I get overwhelmed at how enormous a task this is (I’m not untidy at all but I confess to being a bit of a hoarder, hence why a lot of my stuff lives in drawers as mentioned in the paragraph above!) I know that a lot of people with executive functioning issues find it a lot easier to break the task down into step by step bullet points, eg, “Empty bin”, “hoover”, “dust”, “polish” etc etc. I need to try this some time to see if it makes me any more motivated to have a clear out! Similarly, like a fair number of people with Aspergers, I struggle with cooking. There are just too many processes going on in cooking the average meal and trying to get the timing component right so that everything is ready at the same time is a nightmare! I can remember, at university, cooking a dinner and the vegetables were ready half an hour after the meat pie because I couldn’t work out the timings properly! It is the inability to carry out these sorts of tasks that often leave other people confused or frustrated about the person in their life with Aspergers. People often equate how well someone can do in an academic environment with what they should be able to do in daily life and, in people with a neurodiverse brain, this isn’t always the reality.

There are of course strategies that help people with these problems. Lists, visual reminders and timetables can be of great help in a lot of cases. Some people on the spectrum rely on lists for absolutely everything. I always like to think I can remember things without a list only to be reminded that I can’t! Essentially though, these processes are likely to always be impaired in someone whose brain processes information differently, whether that be because of Aspergers or another condition such as dyslexia. It is part of the way our brains are hardwired. We know that it frustrates a lot of people but please remember that it frustrates us too. I get extremely annoyed with myself for not being able to remember task based things and, to be honest, I am amazed I have managed to keep a job for as long as I have because I was sure when I was younger that I was unemployable. These problems are simply part of the condition we live with on a daily basis. We must learn to live our lives around them and not to be ashamed to seek help when we need it. Everybody needs help sometimes and just because you may be a university lecturer who struggles to complete their laundry because such tasks use a completely different area of the brain than academia, does not mean that you should be ashamed to ask for that help. We all have different skill sets-ours just mostly happen to lie in different areas!

As an aside, if there are people with Aspergers who do not have any executive functioning problems at all, I would love to hear from you. It is an area I am fascinated in and would love to compare experiences.

Touch Sensitivity and the Autistic Spectrum

As I have mentioned before, sensory sensitivities and processing problems are common in autism. This basically means that either a combination of the 5 senses or all 5 senses are processed differently leading people with autism to either avoid or seek certain sensations, noises, textures, tastes and smells. The sense that is sensitive in me is that of touch.

Like a fair number of people on the autistic spectrum, I am very sensitive to light touch. It gives me the same sensation as an insect crawling on me. I prefer deep, firm touch as this is much easier for me to process and deal with. I have always had spots on my body which are very ticklish. The one which I was best known for when I was a child was a spot on my left hip which, at one time, was so ticklish that even someone sitting next to me on that side would set me off laughing and squirming. As I have matured, this area has become a lot less ticklish for some reason. My main ticklish areas now are the soles of my feet (like 99% of people, autistic or not!) and, more unusually, the backs of my legs. The latter one I only discovered last year when having a full body massage (I can tolerate massage because it uses firm touch which my brain finds easier to process) and I couldn’t stop kicking and laughing when the therapist started massaging the backs of my legs. She told me I was the first person she had ever known to be ticklish in that area!

Touch is very complex in my life. I don’t mind being touched by people I like and trust but I absolutely hate being touched by strangers or by people who I don’t get on particularly well with. My friends at university were shocked when I went to the Summer Ball there in my final year and was getting so wound up and angry with the amount of people who were bumping into me! Like a lot of people on the spectrum, I avoid crowds wherever possible. I travel on the London Underground occasionally and always feel like I have taken 10 years off my life by the time I’ve finished because of how stressful I find it! What really winds me up about touch is the fact that so many people don’t even consider that maybe not everyone likes to be touched by someone they’ve only just met and will insist on touching someone on the arm or shoulder within minutes of meeting them. I understand that some people are tactile and like to express themselves through touch but that touch can make the recipient feel deeply uncomfortable sometimes.

The other area that touch really affects but is not that well known about is textures. There are certain foods which I will never desire to eat because the texture feels wrong in my mouth. I know autistic people who avoid fizzy drinks because the sensation of the fizz in their mouths feels wrong to them. The texture of sand on wet skin feels horrible to me and, when I am abroad on a beach holiday, I will try and do anything to avoid having to walk on the sand with wet feet. Similarly, I cannot tolerate wearing clothes made from certain textures. I have only just, in the past year or so, been able to tolerate wearing woolen jumpers with another top underneath them-I still can’t tolerate wool against my bare skin because the itching is all I can focus on. I also have a real fear of static shocks-I hate the feeling of them and, if I fear coming into contact with something that will give me one, I will pull my sleeves up over my hands before I touch the item I fear. Pulling clothes made out of nylon out of a tumble drier and getting the static from that gives me a similar feeling. I have always wondered whether my low pain threshold is related to my touch sensitivity but I don’t think they are related because I know some autistic people who are just as sensitive to touch as I am, if not more so, but who have extremely high pain thresholds.

Over the years I have got a lot better with touch. I will give and reciprocate hugs now which I wasn’t able to do for years because the touch felt too smothering. I no longer get angry when people bump into me (except if I am really tired but I think everyone gets more moody when they are tired). I will, no doubt, continue to develop even more coping strategies than I already have in order to deal with touch (an example is touching myself firmly if I have just been touched lightly and it is making me feel uncomfortable). I am sure the same is true for many people with autism, no matter where they lie on the spectrum. However, I also think that people need to consider how touch feels to someone who is sensitive to it and begin to understand why they display certain reactions. Don’t attribute it to a lack of emotion-most of the time, it is purely neurological and a sign that our sensory processing system is struggling. Please understand this and respect that we are trying our best.

Growing Into Autism

Disclaimer-some of the views in this post may appear controversial but they are my views from growing up with Aspergers and from my interactions with other people on the autistic spectrum.It is not my intention to offend anyone.

One of the most common questions I hear in regards to the topic of autism is “Can you grow out of it?” It is assumed by some that those of us on the spectrum who hold down jobs, are verbal and went through mainstream education must have “grown out of” our autism. Of course we have not grown out of our autism-that implies that autism is a phase in life that you can get over, something you live with for a couple of years and then it miraculously disappears. Autism is a “cradle to grave” condition-it is lifelong. Our brains are wired differently so, from the moment we are born, we are processing information differently even if the more obvious symptoms of autism may not become apparent until the age of 18 months or 2. It may appear that some people have “grown out of” their condition and indeed I have come across people on the Internet who claim this to be the case. I would put forward the argument that, if they are genuinely autistic, they still have symptoms of autism even if the manifestation of those symptoms has changed. I would suggest that those who genuinely feel their autism has vanished were probably misdiagnosed in the first place as there’s a vast difference between learning to live with your symptoms and your condition disappearing completely.

A good example comes from my own childhood. When I was a young child, I used to run around in circles clapping over and over again. This is an example of stimming although, obviously, as a child, I didn’t know what stimming was-I just knew that I loved the sensation of running around in circles clapping. Over the years, this stimming behaviour has changed from running around in circles to pacing while having headphones in and listening to my favourite music. It offers a similar sensory feedback but is seen by other people as “less autistic” and more “acceptable”. Therefore, I probably appear to have “grown out of” this particular manifestation of my condition but all I’ve actually done is replace the behaviour over the years with another behaviour. Some people continue to stim in the same ways throughout their lives and are viewed as low functioning if these stims consist of certain movements that neurotypical people find pointless such as rocking or flapping their hands. However, people who stim through mannerisms such as clicking their fingers or playing with their hair are not viewed in the same way because their stims are seen as more “acceptable” and indeed neurotypical people usually do these things to help their concentration or relieve stress. Some of these people probably feel urges to rock or flap or hum but have had it repeated to them over and over again that they must behave in an “acceptable” way. This links in with the functioning level post I did a few weeks ago. From what I have seen, if someone with autism does not communicate verbally and is seen as low functioning, their stims are often just viewed as part of that diagnosis (although I have heard of people diagnosed with severe autism being told off for stimming in certain environments) whereas, if you have no associated learning disability, communicate verbally and are considered high functioning, stimming in exactly the same ways as someone who is considered low functioning is viewed by many as inappropriate. They don’t understand the reasoning behind why we need to stim and instead tell us over and over again how we need to change these behaviours. I know a lot of people with Aspergers who rock and flap but have to do it in private because it is not understood. The fact that this is expected of us by so many says more about society than it does about us “growing out of” our autism.

Of course, stimming is just one aspect of Aspergers and other conditions on the autistic spectrum and I have met several people with Aspergers who don’t stim, usually people who are not affected by the sensory aspects of the condition. There are other ways in which people appear to have “grown out of” their autism over time. A good example is eye contact. As mentioned on this blog before, the majority of the Western world are obsessed with eye contact. Over the years, those of us with Aspergers who realise how prized the ability to make eye contact is in our societies and know how those who don’t make eye contact are misjudged as dishonest or creepy teach ourselves ways to look at people’s faces so it appears we are making eye contact. Some choose to look at the nose, others choose to look at the forehead, others fixate on a point in the distance and some others make brief, fleeting eye contact and then look somewhere else and then back again for the entirety of the conversation. It may appear that we have “grown out of” this symptom but we still have the same discomfort at the thought of eye contact-we have just come up with clever disguises that make us appear “normal”.

Social skills improve over time in a lot of cases because we painstakingly learn them and commit them to memory. Instinctively, most of us still struggle with social skills but our learned behaviour gets us through social interactions with those we know.Every time I meet a new person, I have to remember this learned behaviour the way that someone might remember something academic-I have learned social skills in an academic way. Many of us have also been through various therapies or courses in social skills. The person with Aspergers who may appear socially confident has not “grown out of” their condition. What you see in this person is the result of years of hard work and learned behaviour.

I leave you with this statement-it is not so much that I or people like me have “grown out of” our autism. Rather, we have grown into it over the years. We have realised that it is a part of who we are and have embraced it. I am not saying that it is always positive but, once you accept your symptoms and your diagnosis, you grow into your condition rather than always feeling like it’s an awkward inconvenience. Remember that you are unique and worth something. Nobody is worthless in life.For those readers who aren’t on the spectrum, just remember that every person on the spectrum who appears to be so “normal” has worked for many years and been through a lot of pain in most cases to get to that point-please respect that.