My Love/Hate Relationship with Concerts: Stimming Joy & Sensory Overload

I’ve loved music as long as I can remember… from singing along to “Shout” by Tears for Fears on MTV before I could properly talk to stim-listening to the same Manic Street Preachers song repeatedly, music has featured in my life in one way, shape or form.

My first ever concert experience was 25 years ago today – 15th July 1993 at Melody Fair Theatre in North Tonawanda, New York.  I was 8 years old and attended The Moody Blues “A Night at Red Rocks” tour, my first outing alone with my parents since my brother was born a little over four years prior (he stayed with my grandparents while we went to the concert)… I remember feeling really excited to get the alone time with my parents, and I really liked The Moody Blues’ music.

(Before anyone decides to poke fun or anything, how many 8-year-olds do you know with their own taste in music that was not at all influenced by their parents?)

Because this was 25 years ago and I’ve slept a lot since then, I only remember snippets from the whole experience.  Melody Fair had a circular stage in the middle of a dome-shaped structure which slowly rotated throughout the concert (the stage, not the building!)… at one point as the band rotated past us, bassist John Lodge waved at me!  I remember one of my foam earplugs fell out (knowing me, I was probably fiddling with it because it felt funny or something) and I couldn’t believe how loud it was.  I looked to my dad for help and he whisked me out of my seat to the rear of the auditorium to put my earplug back in and settle me down.  We went back in and enjoyed the rest of the show.  I loved the feeling of being immersed in the music and seeing a band that I had only ever seen in music videos on TV in person.

We didn’t know back then that I was autistic or had sensory sensitivities; my dad was acting as a concerned and attentive parent, ensuring that his young daughter’s hearing was protected.

Fast forward 25 years.

I can’t remember how many concerts I’ve been to, but I’ve seen The All-American Rejects nine times between 2003-2012 and Manic Street Preachers nine times as well between 2010-2018, so that’s at least 18 concerts… Roger Waters three times (twice The Wall 2011 & 2013 and once US+THEM 2018)… Flight of the Conchords twice (2010 & 2018)… you get the picture.

The phrase “I like going to concerts” is a bit of a misnomer.  Being a pedantic amateur linguist, the more accurate phrase for me would be “I like actually being in my seat and watching the show in my own little bubble and ignoring the rest of the world around me while immersed in the music & lights”.  I have continued with wearing earplugs to concerts, more recently really enjoying using Flare Audio Isolate Mini earplugs, as the sound isn’t muffled and you end up listening through bone conduction.  The rumbling bass and pounding drumbeats reverberate through me and the lighting is colourful and fun to watch.  Being at the concert itself is a full-body stimming experience, which may be overwhelming for some, but when in the right headspace, I love it.

However, it’s the before and after that almost always ruins the enjoyable experience for me.

I’ll use our most recent experience attending the Flight of the Conchords show in Birmingham a few weeks ago as a prime example of what I struggle with most.

We were in the midst of the seemingly neverending heatwave in the UK… temperatures were between 84-90°F (29-32°C).  Very little breeze.  Not really humid, but quite uncomfortable.  My husband and I arrived at the National Exhibition Centre (NEC) complex in Birmingham, parked the car and walked towards Genting Arena.  It felt like it was taking absolutely ages to get to our destination… the heat certainly wasn’t helping things.  We stopped to get something to eat about 3/4 of the way to the arena itself at The Piazza within the NEC itself.  Even going inside, there was no respite from the heat – no air conditioning, no real air movement at all.  The restaurant we stopped at wasn’t very busy to start, but quite soon loads more people arrived and the quiet table we had to ourselves soon had people sitting at every other table near us, and because they were quite close together, individuals would invariably brush past or bump into me as they were walking to their tables from ordering within the restaurant.  Once or twice, I could forgive, but by the fifth or sixth time, it was getting my hackles up, especially as I was still trying to finish my dinner.  As soon as we were finished, we moved away from the restaurant’s seating area and sat at another small table in the Piazza’s open area, spending a little time catching up on Facebook and the news in general for several minutes before heading to the arena.

The walk to the arena wasn’t too bad, other than having to negotiate walking around pairs and small groups of people, which isn’t easy when you have subtle proprioceptive difficulties and somewhat dyspraxic tendencies that are exacerbated by being fatigued and overheated.

Following the Manchester Arena attack last year, security checks at concert venues have been ramped up, which I’m absolutely fine with; however, I am always very self-conscious when I find myself fumbling with the zippers on my rucksack and there’s a queue of people behind me watching, as well as the security officer waiting for me to get my bag open… this little spike of anxiety makes me less dexterous and fumble more, which I then think makes me look guilty somehow, even though I know I’m not bringing anything dangerous or illegal in with me.

Once beyond security, the overwhelm begins.  The arena’s Forum Live area is “the place to grab some food, meet friends for a drink and listen to some fantastic unsigned acts on the Forum Live stage before the main event”… food stands, alcohol purveyors, merchandise stands, music performers, and even charity collectors from Guide Dogs UK – the poor dogs looked so miserable, it was so loud and hot.  There were people everywhere… it was so noisy, and trying to navigate through the crowd was causing another anxiety spike.  We joined a sort-of organised crowd queue system in front of the merchandise stand, which gave us time to have a look at what was available to buy.  I settled on a set of enamel pins – Bret & Jemaine’s faces and a stylised FOTC logo like the pop art LOVE sculpture.

After getting a pint of cider, we found our seats and settled in for the show.  I finally was able to settle down and feel calm.

Eugene Mirman opened the show and was very funny.  Having seen him in FOTC’s HBO show and being a voice actor for shows like Archer and Bob’s Burgers, it was a bit surreal to see him in person.

The Conchords took the stage to a warm reception from the crowd.  The stage set was very simple – a couple of chairs, microphones and their instruments (including a piano) – and the plain backdrop behind the duo acted as a canvas for a colourful PARcan light show.  The show itself was absolutely brilliant and I thoroughly enjoyed it… some new songs we’d never heard before mixed in with several familiar tunes from the TV show.

Then the show ended and it was time to depart.  The difference between the NEC and the NIA (now Arena Birmingham) is that the NEC, while near the Birmingham International Airport railway station, I don’t think many people travelled by train; due to the show’s scheduled end time, the last train would have already left.  The NIA is within short walking distance to both New Street and Snow Hill stations, and thus people tend to disperse in multiple directions from the NIA, whereas from the NEC, it seemed that the majority of people were heading in the same direction towards the car parks.

Walking out of the arena, I kept my earplugs in and I was so glad I did.  Even through my earplugs, it sounded like a cacophony walking through the Forum Live area towards the arena exits, almost like the roar of the ocean in a storm.  I clung to my husband so we didn’t lose each other in the crowd.  As soon as we got outside, I took myself off the footpath onto the grass to catch my breath.  I had to build myself up for the long walk back to the car.

Along the footpath to the car parks, there were pedestrian tunnels and pinch points along the way, which led to the throng of people to stop outright periodically.  Even though it was getting close to 11pm by this point, it was still quite stiflingly warm and I was exhausted… I just wanted to get back to the car.  I didn’t want to be stuck in amongst the crowd of people, hot and sticky and worn out.

When we finally got back to the car, trying to leave was nigh on impossible.  The cars were queuing, pulling out of their car parking spaces cutting others off rudely, and only inching forwards every few minutes.  We were stationary for nearly 45 minutes before we noticed that a second exit to the car park was opened, and we managed to loop the car around to leave that way.  Due to traffic jams (unclear as to the cause), we ended up taking a little detour to get back on the motorway we needed to head home whilst avoiding the long queues on the roads off the NEC campus.

Granted, this was highly unusual and we’ve never experienced a departure from a gig like this… the last time I was stuck leaving an event was easily back when I was still living in Western New York and was trying to leave a Sabres game from downtown Buffalo.

The sensory overwhelm and stress caused by all of this almost made me completely forget about the enjoyable experience I had at the show itself.

My biggest frustration is that being autistic and having sensory needs is not quite recognised by venues like this, nor even by government support offices (I tried applying for Personal Independence Payments to have evidence of need for access, but was declined because I’m too capable of looking after myself… that will be another blog for another day).  The NEC’s website has a section about accessibility for those with physical needs and disabilities, but no indication of how to support autistic guests.  Having a separate accessible entrance & exit and perhaps a shuttle between the car park & venue would have greatly reduced the stress I experienced.  I suppose it’s about raising these kinds of issues and making these venues aware of how they could support guests with invisible disabilities and conditions… but whether they would be open to accommodating us remains to be seen.

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Autistic Burnout & Regression

I started this draft back in April.

I got as far as the title.

Executive Functions include basic cognitive processes such as attentional control, cognitive inhibition, inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility.

Autistic/Aspie Burnout was brilliantly defined by Planet Autism Blog as: “a colloquial term, that the clinical world doesn’t seem to acknowledge as a genuine part of the autistic spectrum, resulting from the attempts to ‘be normal’, fit in and keep up.”

I won’t go into great detail about what specifically happened, but after several months of desperately “treading water” at work, an angry parent aimed their acerbity towards the local authority directly to me in a quite public and personal manner. Having endured years of working as a front-line social worker and various complex situations in SEND, this was the first time that it was made personal, despite me figuratively bending over backwards to sort this case out in a way that the parent would be happy and, of paramount importance, the child would have their needs best met.

When this all kicked off, I was shocked and rendered speechless; I could not believe what I was reading. When I flagged this up to my manager, she was quite comforting and told me to not worry about it (let’s face it – this advice DOES NOT WORK for me). I went home and told my husband about it, and he too said to not worry about it (see above). The next day, we found out that this parent posted his venomous letter publicly to Facebook. Thankfully, the local authority has a team that can approach Facebook to have such posts removed; however, in my mind, it was out there. My name was out there with libelous information about my professionalism and my dedication to my work. I was floored… I was crushed. I was emotionally numb over the course of the weekend, but come Monday, the start of the next work week, I couldn’t bring myself to leave the house. By Tuesday, I couldn’t stop crying. I phoned my GP and was given an urgent appointment, resulting in me being signed off work with stress. My GP even said to me, “I’ve never seen you this low.” When I explained everything that happened, she was very sweet and empathetic and insisted that I be signed off work.

Now, to tie this all in with the title of the blog (that’s why you came here, after all, not to read my long-winded whinge about how a parent was mean to me).

Following my diagnosis nearly one year ago, one could argue that very little in my life changed – I was still me, after all – but I would argue that everything in my life changed. My understanding of myself changed massively. Suddenly, the things I silently suffered with, I had the language to be able to explain them rather than just “deal with it” whilst it was silently causing me agony with an “oh, it’s not a big deal” attitude when it was a massive deal to me. I gained a network of friends – my AsperSisters – who shared my experiences and provided the validation I had craved for so much of my life.

Whilst so many positives came from my diagnosis, there still was a lot of new information flying around my head and I became even more aware of my particular set of needs. Despite identifying these things and the best way to manage them, I kept pushing myself in my usual way… which has led to the burnout.

The burnout where migraines prevent me from getting out of bed, let alone doing anything remotely social and otherwise enjoyable. The burnout where these migraines led to me being physically unwell – a new symptom which I had never experienced before (bearing in mind I’ve suffered from migraines since age 14). The burnout where I am left feeling feeble and useless, not only to myself but to others who rely on me.

The burnout led to the regression. The regression is where things that were once easily completed now take much more cognitive and physical energy. The biggest area in my life where the regression has hit hard is cleaning the house. [Now I will clarify this by saying we don’t live in a filthy house which is on the verge of being condemned, but rather it’s in a perpetual state of “organised chaos”.] I can just about muster the energy to do a superficial clean & tidy if someone is coming round to the house, but doing a full-blown cleaning blitz like I have done in the past requires too much energy. I’m not sure if it’s just because the house is a lot more space to look after than my previous residences and I just can’t mentally break the task down into smaller pieces or what, but there is some sort of disconnect where I just get stuck.

Another area of regression is going shopping at the grocery store or being out in town. It’s not like I particularly enjoy either of these things, but I could certainly just about cope for enough time to get done what I need to and then leave without incident. Now, I will actively wait to go grocery shopping until a guaranteed quiet time (usually around 7pm Friday or Saturday and either 10am or 2pm on a Sunday) and sometimes have had to resort to putting in my earplugs or headphones in order to minimise sensory overload (noisy kids or the rickety stock trolleys staff drag along with squeaking wheels and rattling metal!). The only time we go into town now is when we get haircuts. Whereas before we would wander amongst the shops and look around for a while, our routine now is to go for an early lunch at Jane’s Pantry, maybe nip into Boots first to pick up a few items, then go home.

Going to Pilates once a week has also taken a back seat whilst I’ve been recuperating from this burnout. We are very lucky to have an amazing Pilates instructor local to us and we enjoy her style of teaching, as she looks after every participant individually and advises how to do the exercises in a way that is best for you. Because I’m no longer a member of the gym where we first started going to her classes, we instead go to one of her sessions at a village hall 6.5 miles away from home. However, by the evening on the day of the class, I just don’t have the energy to sit in the traffic that we inevitably hit to get there… trying to get there before the 6pm start to establish ourselves in our preferred place in the hall means leaving ours around 5:20pm… it should not take half an hour to travel 6.5 miles, but it does and it just takes any energy I had out of me. You know The Spoon Theory? Let’s say by 5pm I have about 3 spoons left for the day; 30 minutes of rush hour traffic can easily take away all 3 of those spoons, leaving me susceptible to meltdown.

I also feel bad that I’ve let a new friend down, though she says that she understands. I met Izzie at the Autism Post-Diagnostic Group I attended from March to April through the NHS, and we struck up a friendship quite quickly. She is working on a young adult fantasy novel and I offered to do some reviewing and editing for her whilst she worked on it. I was captivated by her writing and really enjoyed reading it as I was editing, but found that I was only able to do both for a short space of time. It got to the point where she would spend a fair amount of time doing more writing and re-writing that the document that I had to review was no longer current. She had given me the memory stick again and it has just sat in my laptop bag, untouched, for several weeks. I gave it back to her yesterday (after a frantic search because it wasn’t in the part of my laptop bag that I thought I had left it in!) and apologised profusely that I hadn’t done any more reviewing or editing on it. Izzie is so lovely and said it was really okay, but I still felt bad. I told her that before she wants to submit it to give it to me with a deadline, and that whatever I get done prior to that deadline will be however much I actually do. I really think she’s got amazing potential and I hope someone will want to publish it for her.

Hell, even WRITING, something that I thoroughly enjoy, has been hit by this regression cloud. It categorically should not have taken me nearly FOUR MONTHS to write this flippin’ blog, but here we are on the 1st of August and I’m only getting it finished and published now. I’m hoping that this will knock me out of the funk that I’ve been in…

I have always been one to do too much to prove that I’m not lazy and to overcompensate when I feel like I could be misconstrued as such. Now that I understand that there is an explanation behind my reduced energy levels, recognise what autistic burnout is and how it presents in me, I’m hoping that I’ll be able to move forward in a more positive way. I will do my best to do more that makes me happy and less of what drains me and makes me miserable.

Thanks for sticking with me during this whinge and moan. 🙂 🌸

Aspie Burnout & The Worst Migraine of My Life…

This past week was very full-on, as we spent a few days in London, which were brilliant but completely overwhelming for me.  When you look at what we did, it was a fun time away:

We arrived on Tuesday, had lunch at Zizzi’s, then found our hotel and thought about what to do in the evening.  I suggested going to see the new Harry Potter(-ish) film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.  As to be expected in London, standard cinema tickets were extortionately expensive, so to make it worth the extra money, we went to The Lounge at the Odeon, which was just down the road and on the corner of the road where our hotel was.  The Lounge was for adults only (as in no children under 18 allowed), with dedicated bar service and food menu, as well as leather sofas which reclined and had footrests which elevated – and even a call button for service so you didn’t have to leave your seat during the film!!  The film was fantastic and the viewing experience was top notch, as there were no extraneous noises from the other cinema-goers to irritate me.  We walked back to our hotel and went to bed, ready for another full day ahead.

Wednesday morning, we went downstairs for breakfast.  This is where my first wobble happened.  Every hotel is different – some let you help yourself to a table and food, others want you to wait to be seated and verify you have pre-booked your breakfast.  No one was stood by the door when we reached the breakfast room and when I enquired to an employee if we had to check in or just help ourselves, it became apparent that English was not her first language and she walked off to get someone else without saying a word (and just looking very nervous).  Someone else came back with her and still did not seem to understand my question, so led us to a table then said, “you can help yourselves to the continental breakfast.”  Why lead us to a table when we’re not going to sit down until we have food?  Surely it made more sense to say, “yes, help yourselves and I’ll lead you to a table.” or something like that.  So that frustrated me as it was a whole back-and-forth exchange that didn’t need to be so complicated.  The breakfast offering wasn’t that great either – the milk for the cereal was nearly room temperature (yuck!), the croissants were bordering on stale, the apple I had was mushy and gross, and nothing else on offer appealed to me.  We went back up to the room to prepare to set off for Watford Junction to get to the Harry Potter Studio Tour.

We knew that we had one change on our travels at Euston Station, but what we did not anticipate was the sheer volume of people trying to make it up the escalators – it was like herding cattle, so crowded and disorienting.  When we finally made it into the station to look at the train departure boards, I was overwhelmed by everything around me and only paid attention to seeing “WATFORD JUNCTION” on the departure boards – not thinking twice about it being London Overground (which is what we got) vs London Midland (which is what we wanted).  I thought that it shouldn’t be too much of an issue, or we could go change platforms, but Paul said that it would cost us to swipe our Oyster cards back out again, even though we haven’t gone anywhere, so we stayed and took the London Overground, which took nearly 45 minutes to get to Watford Junction, as it stopped at every. single. stop. along. the. way.  [The London Midland service would have gotten us there in 20 minutes.]  Thankfully, when we eventually arrived, the designated coach that runs directly between Watford Junction and the Studio Tour was still waiting by the kerb, so we dashed for it and got on board before it set off.

Queueing for entry to the Studio Tour wasn’t too terrible, though it was surprisingly crowded for a Wednesday morning (during term-time as well).  Seeing everything on the tour was hampered by the other tourists/visitors getting in my way when I was trying to see something or snap a picture – I realise this sounds childish, but I would stand aside to let people take their photo before trying to take mine, but I kept being cut off and blocked and at times I genuinely wondered if I was invisible. 😦  We did enjoy going around and seeing all the authentic objects/props/sets from the films… it truly was magical.  Lunch was expensive (as one would expect from a prime London tourist spot) and the Butterbeer was weird (Paul thought it tasted like butterscotch and Irn-Bru, and I thought the frothy foam top was a bit too sweet for my liking), but I’m glad we tried it.  We showed great restraint in the gift shop at the end, only purchasing a Hogwarts crest fridge magnet and picking up our Collector’s Guide (which was purchased as part of our ticket package).

The London Midland service back to Euston was a lot quicker.  We got back in plenty of time to grab a quick bite near the hotel, drop our Harry Potter stuff off and minimise our carried possessions to head off to the concert in Islington.  When we changed from the Central to Victoria lines, the Tube was quite full and busy, but I just counted the number of stops until we made it to Highbury & Islington.  When we arrived at the platform, the place was absolutely packed – unbeknownst to us, there was a home game for Arsenal and loads of punters were using the Underground to get to the match.  It took several minutes to get through the throng of people – Paul stayed behind me with his hands on my hips, which made me feel safe and secure – and when we made it to the ground level near the exit, I needed to stand off to the side to catch my breath and de-stress a bit.  I had never been in such a crowded situation like that where it was so closed-in (the last time we were in a similar situation was when we saw the Manic Street Preachers at Cardiff Castle and were trying to exit with the thousands of attendees through one of the two castle entryways, but at least it was out in the open).

The concert hall was easy to find and we were up in the balcony quite quick to secure good seats in the first row; Paul was very happy with our positioning in line with one of the speaker stacks.  The comedian who was emceeing was a bit obnoxious (I didn’t laugh at any of his material), the supporting act Haiku Salut was a bit too avant-garde for my liking (though I didn’t exactly dislike their set either), comedian Ed Byrne was hilarious, and PSB’s set was brilliant.  The one-off show was in benefit of Bowel Cancer UK and over £12,000 was raised.

The Tube was a fair bit quieter heading back to the hotel afterwards, as the football finished before the concert did.

Thursday morning breakfast was a bit of a palaver too, but this time it was just too crowded and too noisy for me – the ceilings were quite low, there were a lot of people, the tables were all quite close together, and all I could hear was silverware banging and clanging on plates and bowls – it was enough to drive me mad.  We quickly ate and went back up to the room and had a little lie-down with the curtains drawn and one of the dim sidelights on.  Paul gave me a cuddle and I got a bit weepy, but then I got cross with myself for getting weepy over something so trivial, but I was genuinely feeling so overwhelmed by all the extraneous sensory input over the last few days.  After about 20 minutes (and an episode of BoJack Horseman on Netflix), I felt ready to pack up and check out of the hotel.

Sitting in the Victoria Coach Station departure lounge was the most irritating experience, to say the least.  Every few seconds, the three-toned chime for an upcoming announcement would sound, followed by someone blowing into a microphone and saying “one two one two, testing”, followed again by the three-toned chime.  Repeat that at least 25-30 times over the course of an hour.  After about 5 minutes, I had to put earplugs in, but that didn’t help silence it completely, and I didn’t have my headphones or iPod to listen to music to drown it out, but it was slowly driving me mad.  Ten minutes prior to boarding our coach, Paul asked for the ticket, which I handed him.  He said, “the date is wrong.”  He had asked me to change our departure time a few days before from 16:30 to 12:30, but National Express’s website clearly did not keep my selection of Thursday 24th as it changed to Tuesday 22nd – effectively, turning around 40 minutes after arriving in London to return home!!  I naturally started to panic, but Paul said to keep cool.  He handed the coach driver the paper with his thumb over the date – everything else from the departure time to the coach number matched – and the driver accepted it and welcomed us onto the coach!!  I couldn’t believe it – thankfully the coach was less than half full, so it’s not like we were taking seats away from other travellers, but I was so grateful to not have to shell out extra money I didn’t have to amend it a second time.  I am grateful for positive outcomes like this!! 🙂

Thursday evening when we got home, I was zonked.  There was no way I had the energy to go to my usual choir session, so I instead went to dinner with Paul, his mother, and his uncle & aunt who were visiting from London.  Not quite a traditional Thanksgiving dinner (which I no longer observe), but a nice meal out nonetheless. 🙂

Friday was a busy day at work catching up on all the things that had accumulated in my inbox while I was away, along with picking up a quite serious safeguarding concern with a senior officer.  I was only too glad to be able to pack up at the end of the day and head home.  That evening was a Big Sing event with my choir where about 250 participants from across the 5 choirs our leader oversees met in one large room in a small assembly hall complex.  Whilst the sound we made was amazing, the PA had to be a bit louder than usual and the chatter of everyone around prior to starting was a bit much, so I put my earplugs in until my usual companions from my choir arrived and sat near me.  I also got to disclose my Autism diagnosis to two of my three usual companions, as an opportunity has not easily presented itself since we started up again in September and I wasn’t quite sure how to share it.  [Coincidentally, I saw this blog, Coming Out Autistic, posted today by Anonymously Autistic which I will also separately address in another post soon.]  I got home much later than expected because the northbound motorway was shut and taking the parallel-running A-road took about 20 minutes longer, thanks to the increased lorry traffic.  I went to bed and fell asleep pretty much straight away.

That brings us to Saturday morning.  Just gone 6:00, I woke up needing the loo and had an absolutely pounding headache – most certainly a migraine.  Did my business and went back into the bedroom, took an Imigran and climbed back into bed to go back to sleep.  Woke up again just gone 9:30, no effect from the Imigran, this time feeling quite nauseated.  Rolled over in bed, nausea got worse – a mad dash to the bathroom to be sick.  I have never had this effect from a migraine before.  Got back into bed and about half an hour or so later, tried rolling over again more gently this time – same again.  Then got myself into a more comfortable stable position where I would try not to move and slept from about 10:10 to 13:40, when Paul came in to see if I wanted lunch and if I was still alive.  My head was still killing me, but I wasn’t hungry.  He offered to bring me a few Pringles to nibble on, which I gratefully accepted, along with my prescription sunglasses (as it was too bright for me to just wear my regular ones without excruciating sensitivity).  After about 10-15 minutes, I thought I’d try going downstairs for a bit, hoping that being vertical and out of the bedroom might help, but I only lasted about 20 minutes before I had to retreat back to bed for another two and a half hours.  By 16:40 when I woke up again, I could not detect a residual headache.  I slowly sat up, fully expecting to be hit with it again, but I wasn’t.  I went downstairs with my regular glasses on and felt – dare I say it – fine.  We managed to keep our plans for the evening with some friends (as I had to postpone my plans with my cousin during the day for obvious reasons) which I was fully expecting to have had to cancel.  After having a bit to eat and a shower, I felt like my usual self again and couldn’t believe I had been laid out by that migraine for so much of the day.

On reflection, I think this was a classic case of Aspie Burnout.  I have seen this a couple of times floating around on the internet, but this best explains the migraine from hell.  I have never had one make me physically ill before – and I hope to never have one like that again – but it clearly was my body & mind’s way of saying, “STOP. Just stop what you’re doing and rest.”  I cannot remember the last time I slept that long, but I clearly needed it; I was even able to fall asleep without issue after we got home from our friends’ house on Saturday night.

As a bit of supplemental reading, please check out this post from Planet Autism BlogAspie Burnout, which also references The Spoon Theory, another good way to look at what I experienced.  I hope by sharing my experiences, others will be able to read them and say, “Yeah! I had that too!” 🌸

My White Whale – The Interview (Take 2)

Or: How Moby Dicked Me Over Again

[clever alternate title courtesy of Paul 😉]

[For context, see My White Whale – The Interview

UGH.  I feel like I’m teetering on the edge of a massive meltdown and am desperately trying to hold myself together.  This week I have been contending with a cold, an interview (detailed below), discovering an attempted break-in to our house (looked like an opportunist and thank goodness they didn’t succeed, but dealing with the police and home insurance has been cognitively demanding), and feeling a growing sense of dread over the American Presidential election next week (I can’t even go there right now… either outcome fills me with dread, but obviously one outcome would be far worse than the other).

We came back from our holiday the other week with me having a little bit of a scratchy throat.  Participating in an outdoor choir performance the next day probably didn’t help things and I now have my standard autumnal viral infection/”cold” and persistent cough.  Greaaaat.

On Monday, I had an interview with my local Local Authority for a position with the SEN Casework Team.  As I now have my official diagnosis, I was able to confidently ask for the reasonable adjustment of having the written questions available to me in the interview (n.b. not asking for them beforehand) and I thought that surely I would be able to approach this interview in the best position possible – I’m interviewing for a job I’m doing every day anyway, and I don’t have to solely rely on my auditory processing skills to be able to fully answer the questions – WHAT COULD GO WRONG?

Lots, apparently.

This service had recently undergone a massive restructuring so there were 5 posts advertised – 3 permanent, 2 fixed term – and two of the three permanent posts would have been great for me.  Despite being kept waiting in the lobby for 45 minutes beyond my scheduled interview time without so much as a “We’re very sorry but we’re running late,” and apologising to the interview panel for still being a bit poorly, I thought I actually did a really good interview.  I was rattling off things relating to the Code of Practice and Education Health & Care Plans and I thought my scenario examples were quite good and gave sufficient evidence of what (I thought) they were asking for in the questions.

They had three full days of interviews (I was advised that they received over 60 applications for these posts) and two days to make decisions and callbacks were made today.  I was told that I scored highly on the knowledge side of things (in terms of understanding the Code of Practice and technicalities of the position), but that I did not score as highly in giving examples of managing difficult scenarios – not that I scored low, but that other candidates scored higher.  With so many qualified applicants, the odds were stacked.

I’m quite disappointed (for obvious reasons) because I really thought I did the best interview possible, but I guess my ability to understand what the interviewers are looking for is still a hindrance (yay for my Aspie brain).  I expressed my disappointment and said that I am very keen to work for this Council again, and she said that it certainly wasn’t a poor interview, but that there were just so many very qualified and able candidates.  What was quite encouraging was that she said to try again if another job was advertised.

However, I am really in the best situation because I had nothing to lose with applying for this job: I have my current job and I have super-supportive colleagues and senior staff around me.  I really cannot say enough about how wonderful they really are; we have a laugh/cry/rant together, we look after each other, and they understand me.  I am not actively trying to leave, but I had to take the punt with this authority as it is closer to home and I’m getting bored of commuting 40-ish minutes each way every day (except when I’m working from home, which can be once or twice a week).

Obviously, it’s not a case that I expected to be given the job because I disclosed that I am autistic; if anything, I still feel like even with the reasonable adjustment of having the questions printed for reference in the interview itself, that still doesn’t change the fact that the questions are quite ambiguous and what I think may be relevant may not be what the interviewers are looking for – it’s that whole Theory of Mind thing again.  I find it hard to anticipate what exactly they want me to respond with.  Do questions have to be ambiguous (even for neurotypicals) because anything else would give the answer away in an inadvertant way and not end up having the “weeding out” effect that interviewing is designed to have?  I feel like there is still a lot that is not understood about autism presentation in adults, especially those who want to work, which is the focus of the current campaign that the National Autistic Society is running about closing the autism employment gap [sign the petition by clicking the link].

I realise that I am in the 16% minority of autistic people in employment; however, I have had brief periods of unemployment a few years ago when a job I had gone for turned out to not be what I was expecting at all and I ended up being fired from it after two and a half months.  I had never felt like such a complete and utter failure before and I hope to never feel that way again.  It was a very bleak and depressing time for me.

When a new job did not come up within the next few weeks, I finally applied for Job Seekers Allowance – my first time ever on any sort of benefit – and when I tried to get it backdated to when I lost my job in the first place, they rejected it and said, “You should have applied straight away.”  How is someone who has never been unemployed or on any benefits supposed to know that implicitly?  When I left that awful job, they didn’t give me any sort of information as to what to do next!  Even thinking about it now brings up awful memories of the deeply rejecting feelings I had.

I still have to indicate on any CV or job application the periods of time I had unemployed (after losing that job and when short-term temporary contracts ended), and while those were in 2012/2013 and I’ve been continuously employed since Sept 2013, I still have to answer to those employment gaps, which would be minor in comparison to others on the Autism Spectrum, I’m sure. In this way, I’m grateful for my diagnosis now so that I can put my past employment experiences into a context of my undiagnosed Autism and hopefully this will help me move forward with future job applications.

We don’t want to sit at home doing nothing; we know that we have a lot to contribute to a job.  We just need to be given reasonable adjustments to show what we can do.

As with every application rejection, I will eventually get over it… but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hurt right now. 🌸

My White Whale – The Interview

I’ve titled this entry referring to the White Whale in Moby Dick to use in this context: “To describe an opponent/nemesis who is extremely difficult to defeat; can also apply to miscellaneous games or events which are difficult to master.”

So, I realise it’s been a little while again, but to be fair, I’ve had another few cognitively exhausting weeks which included preparing for an interview which I was originally convinced that I didn’t get offered.

I’ll rewind a bit.

I saw a job posting for my local Local Authority for a Fostering Social Worker post in the fostering support team (i.e. supporting carers directly versus recruiting them, which was my downfall in the independent fostering agencies I tried working for a few years ago).  I was on the fence about whether I wanted to re-enter the field I’ve been out of for over three years but thought I had nothing to lose by at least applying.  So I did, and I had expected to hear back exactly two weeks after the closing date (which was the first May bank holiday).  When I heard nothing by the end of the Monday a fortnight later, I thought that it wasn’t meant to be… until Tuesday morning when I received the email inviting me to interview.

Because the last time I tried applying for a SEN Casework role with this Local Authority and I didn’t get offered the job because I didn’t fully answer the questions – (because how can you ask a three-part question and expect ANYONE to be able to answer it fully??) – so I actually went so far as to ask the Recruitment Team if I could have the written questions available to me in the interview (n.b. not asking for them beforehand), as I am awaiting an assessment for Autism.  Beyond that, I spent time on the phone with my friend who is a Kinship Care social worker and chatting to a couple of my friends in my current team, doing my best to prepare for this interview.

Well, the interview was two days ago.  I’ll give you the spoiler alert now: I didn’t get offered the job.

I got to the first part of the interview at 10:20 (for a 10:30 interview), but the lady on reception didn’t ring up to the team to say I was there until 10:32 – which made me mad, because surely that would say to them that I got there late!! When the admin came down to collect me, I made it a point to say that I was there early and that I couldn’t understand why the receptionist didn’t ring up sooner… especially since there were prolonged silences with her and a man who I could only guess was a security type person (walkie-talkie on his belt) interspersed with awkward chit-chat.

Anyway, get into the interview room and have the questions put in front of me, introductions made to the interview panel – the team manager for the post in question recognised me from when I applied to this role about three years ago where I missed the benchmark by 5 points.  They asked me the questions, I re-read them to make sure I understood them, and I did my best to answer them.  I was even given the opportunity to return to any of my responses to give more information, which I did for one question wherein it was about research or serious case review informing practice… I mentioned my interest in Autism and I brought it back to relating to foster carers looking after children on the spectrum.  I walked out feeling fairly confident.

I then had an hour to kill before the second part of the interview… all that was mentioned in the email was an hour-long session with “young ambassadors” with the other candidates… delightfully vague, right?  So I had no idea what to expect.  I get led into the room with the other two candidates – one slightly older and one slightly older than her – and in front of us on the table was a range of arts and crafts supplies with big pieces of paper taped to the wall behind us.  The activity was also delightfully vague – “illustrate what you think a good fostering social worker looks like”.  Not being funny, but I am not a super crafty person anyway, let alone when put on the spot and expected to be instantaneously creative.  I couldn’t hide my horror and tried my best to follow the lead of the other candidates.  I can’t really draw for anything, so rather than illustrating, I was just writing words on the side of the outline of the person.  I did the best that I could despite feeling horribly uncomfortable.

Fast forward about four hours after the interview and I get the phone call.  Something along the lines of, “thank you for coming in, it was lovely to meet you, you have a lot of warmth and passion, however….” and then the most infuriating thing: “the candidate we selected, it was apparent in her responses that she has had more [quantity] recent involvement of direct work with children and that did not come across as much in your responses”.  I was starting to fume.  I reiterated that I answered the questions as they were presented to me, and if they wanted me to talk about that, then I would have done, but I didn’t feel like that was asked in any of the questions.  At this point, because I had nothing to lose because I already didn’t have the job, I explained to her that I’m awaiting an assessment for Autism (as I wasn’t sure if the Recruitment Team indicated this or not), and why I asked for the questions to be written out for me to read after asked verbally was because I wanted to be sure I was answering all parts of the questions.  She didn’t seem to respond much to this revelation, but thanked me again for coming along and best of luck, etc. all the same bullshit you dismiss someone with.

I realise that a diagnosis is not going to change much in my day to day life, but I realise that it’s probably gonna make it harder for me to get a new job because I can’t get past the interview part when there are veiled questions behind the questions I’m actually being asked.  It’s almost like I need a subtext interpreter in an interview… is it so wrong that I take things at face value?  I don’t think people understand my difficulties with language interaction because I am very articulate… but processing verbal information takes me a long time and it’s hard for me to read into the subtext or find the implied questions.  I’m so mad about this.  It’s not even like I was that desperate to get the job, but I’m more upset about the fact that I didn’t get the job is basically because of my language difficulties, which I’ve only become aware of since delving into this whole diagnosis journey.  I feel like I want to complain to someone… the Recruitment Team, or the National Autistic Society (to seek an advocate to help me complain)… but then, on the other hand, I wonder if it’s even worth it.  People will just continue to find other reasons to not hire someone even if it’s not directly because of their Autism.  What frustrates me even more is that I have successfully worked as a social worker for nearly five years before I even discovered that I may be on the spectrum… but clearly that counts for nothing.

On the other hand, I’m in a good position because I still have a permanent job within a team where I have several friends who understand and support my journey to diagnosis; now whether this is just because of the nature of our job (Special Educational Needs) or that I’m just lucky enough to be around caring, understanding people, it’s hard to say.

Like all my other recent interview rejections, I’ll eventually get over this one too, but I’m still angry about it… but for the first time, I’m not mad so much at myself but rather the unwritten rules of the interview game which I’m clearly not privy to.

Until the next one… 😥