The Trauma of Being an Empathic Autistic Advocate

When you scratch the surface of all autistic advocates, an indelible layer of trauma exists from our early lives, whether we were professionally identified in childhood, adolescence or not until adulthood. Whether the trauma is caused by inadvertent behavioural conditioning from our parents & teachers, abuse in its many varieties (physical, verbal, psychological, etc.), failed friendships, awkward encounters and everything in between, we all have our baggage. I have taken a significant step back from advocacy because I have felt triggered through the actions of autistic activists and from some within the online autistic community.  It’s very hard to keep pushing through when I feel like I’ve been hit right on the nerve that causes me so much upset, heartache and internal “ickiness” that will never go away. I feel the need to state that whilst I hate how certain groups on the political Right have taken the word “triggered” and use it in a derogatory way towards those who they perceive as “special snowflakes”, I cannot think of another word more appropriate word to use.  I hope it’s interpreted in its intended form. I draw a line of differentiation between advocates and activists; both groups aim to have autism and neurodiversity accepted in society (awareness is never enough), but I find that activists can be a bit more “warrior-like” and outwardly angry by actively pointing out what’s wrong with how autistics are treated in a multitude of settings, and advocates tend to take more of a softer approach, sharing personal stories in the hopes of others identifying with their words and helping others speak their truths. Don’t get me wrong – both activists and advocates are essential to changing the world; the problem arises when infighting occurs and one group tells the other what they’re doing is wrong or ineffective. To be transparent, I started writing this post seven months ago – I’ve felt that exhausted by what was happening in the community that I couldn’t bring myself to login to my WordPress account to write anything new, let alone finish this post. Given that I started writing this in April, which is Autism Awareness(/Acceptance) Month, it’s not surprising that I needed to step back.  April turns into a perpetual fight against the blue puzzle piece assault by the Auti$m Organisation That Must Not Be Named, which brings up difficult conversations with friends and strangers alike. You don’t speak for my child – you’re much higher functioning! You don’t know what it’s like – you’re not an Autism Parent! These kinds of conversations never end well and unfortunately perpetuate the divide between the autistic community, parents of autistic children & young adults, and everyone else. Whilst I may not have practised as a social worker since 2013, there is an undying part of me that persists and perseveres for understanding and acceptance – I just don’t have the energy to get as angry as some activists do, and rather do what I can with the energy reserves I have.  I am thankful for those who can get angry about things and continue to function; I just wish that their anger would be directed more appropriately towards those who need to change their attitudes, behaviours and treatment towards the autistic community, not fighting among the ranks of those trying to make a difference for future generations.

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. 🙂 🌸

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. 🌸

Debunking “Everyone is a little autistic.”

I know several people who have said, “Everyone is a little autistic” in one way, shape or form.  Hell, even before I was self-aware of my own autism, I hold my hands up and say that I thought this too.  I’m writing about it now because it’s recently come up in a conversation with a well-intentioned friend and despite my attempt at a tactful way of saying, “Actually, no…” I don’t think this person quite understood and it’s been bugging me a bit for the past few days.  Because I am a non-confrontational person, I didn’t escalate it any further because I was off-guard and didn’t quite know how to appropriately argue the point.

In the video Things not to say to an autistic person posted by BBC Three (which I have recently re-shared on social media), the panel of autistic people give their thoughts on this statement (ellipses denote going to another panel member’s thoughts/opinion):

“So we’re taught in school we’ve got five senses. Wrong – we’ve got six. The sixth one being our Theory of Mind, the ability to understand everybody else’s thought processes… You don’t have that instinctive understanding… and we rely on people’s body language and they lie with their body language, and that just makes me angry… So if you have the ability to do that, please don’t ever say you could be a little bit autistic, because it really is… Yeah, just don’t, just stop.”

I have managed to mask my lack of Theory of Mind quite well.  With hindsight, I think I ended up studying Psychology and Social Work because I wanted to understand how people thought and why people behaved the way they do.  Because I had the personality traits of a typical first-born in being a “people-pleaser” and learning from observing and trial-and-error, I learned a set of social skills to be able to appear to anticipate the needs of others based on what I thought I would need in the same situation.  In my email correspondence with Katherine Green after my first two appointments, she read the longest version of my questionnaire responses (because I sent the very long version, an abridged version and a mid-sized one restoring some of the more significant details I had taken out because I felt the abridged one was then too short) and noted that I wrote in everything that I thought was relevant, not really having awareness of what details were more important and which ones were not.  Even with this pointed out to me, looking back through what I sent, I still couldn’t unpick how I could have made it more relevant… This probably extends to my difficulties with job interviews because I know what I think is important, but I don’t know and can’t easily anticipate what it is that the interviewer is looking for in my responses.

I believe that when people say “everyone is a little autistic”, they’re trying to say that we all have certain levels of quirkiness and find certain things easier or more difficult than others, but ultimately, that’s just being human.  It then makes those who are autistic feel dismissed and their autism not being that big of a deal.  I came across a post on this topic by another blogger and thought these few sentences illustrate it much better than I feel like I am at this precise moment:

The only way I know to communicate how dismissive it is to say something like “we are all a little autistic” is to shift the whole idea into the context of some other disabilities:

“Sometimes I am looking for something and it’s right in front of me and I just kept missing it even when I was looking right at it. We’re all a little Blind, aren’t we?”

…When you use someone else’s disability as an adjective for your quirks or otherwise reduce it to a one-dimensional descriptor, you are making light of their entire life. And when you say everyone is a little bit autistic, you are trivializing what it actually means to be Autistic. ~ Unstrange Mind

So, while I recognise that I’m still coming to grips with this new aspect of my personal identity, this is one subject that I felt needed addressing separately.  For more on this, please do check out Unstrange Mind’s post (link above in quote box) because they explain it far more articulately than I can.

1 year, 1 month and 24 days later…

…I walk into the clinic’s group room with my dad, my husband and meet the psychiatrist and the speech & language therapist (from my first two appointments).  The time is 10:00am.  We break the ice talking about tea before getting down to business.  We talk… a lot.  I cry… a fair bit.  My dad speaks… I speak… Paul doesn’t say too much, but what he says is helpful and relevant.  Hours pass.  Around 13:30 (at an estimate, because I wasn’t actively looking at my watch), the psychiatrist said that she was still unsure about me.  She felt that we had to address “the elephant in the room” before proceeding with the discussion about whether I am autistic or not – the underlying and apparent feelings of rejection I possess which run very deep.

The rejection primarily stems from my mother, which really is unsurprising; it’s just that I’ve just not had it reflected back to me in that way before.  I could sense the shift in her attention from the age of four and a half when my brother was born.  I could sense that she didn’t want me “in the way” when my brother was having his speech therapy sessions (with her best friend) and his occupational therapy sessions (because he had balance & coordination difficulties).  I could sense her pushing me away after I reconciled with my dad because I didn’t tell her straight away in case we fell out again (despite it being none of her business) because she thought we were conspiring against her somehow (ridiculous, I know).  I knew she had “wiped her hands clean of me” on 13th July 2008 when the last phone call I had with her concluded with her saying, “Have a nice life” before hanging up the phone to me indefinitely (still haven’t spoken with her since).

The second stem of rejection came around the end of high school.  I don’t think I could cope with the prospect of my school routine being thrown completely into turmoil by graduating and going to university.  I think I felt like my circle of friends were more ready to move on than I was.  I am obviously looking back on events that occurred over 14 years ago, so I can only guess what I was actually feeling at the time because a) I can’t completely remember and b) I don’t think I even knew at that time.  In order to feel some semblance of control, I felt like I needed to distance myself from my friends, completely cutting myself off from them.  I did not attend anyone’s graduation party and I did not have one of my own.  When my friends came round to try to talk to me to find out what was wrong, I refused to go out and speak to them.  I didn’t know what to say or how to face them.  I was hurting, I was embarrassed, I was confused.  I wanted to apologise but I didn’t know how or what to say.

The third stem of rejection was losing my job just after returning from our honeymoon.  In brief, I interviewed for a career enhancing position with an independent fostering agency after I had about three years of experience as a Local Authority social worker.  They briefly threw the word “recruitment” (of new foster carers) into the interview, and because I wanted the job, I said that I’d be open to learning about how to do it.  After I started, it became apparent that despite my job title officially being “Supervising Social Worker” my actual role was to go out and recruit my own caseload of new foster carers.  For someone without additional (and at the time unknown) difficulties, this would seem a steep request.  Counting from the day I started (1st December 2011) to the day they fired me (15th February 2012), a week and a half after I returned from getting married and having our honeymoon (15 working days off), I had actually worked for them for 36 actual days.  How in the hell was I supposed to recruit ten new sets of foster carers in 36 working days where the Christmas period was smack in the middle of it all??  I think it boiled down to a personality conflict with my line manager, who was on one day nice as anything, and the next day could be extremely unapproachable.  I didn’t like her approach and she didn’t give me any sort of actual support in doing the recruitment, even after I asked for help because she expected me to “use my initiative” but that’s very hard to do when you don’t even know where to start.  I’d spend 8 hours sat behind a table with leaflets on it and a pull-out standing poster behind me in a supermarket foyer, hoping somebody would come and talk to me (as I could not badger customers coming in or going out of the store).  It was hell.  It was demeaning.  It was embarrassing.  I’m glad I didn’t end up being there very long, but I’m painfully embarrassed to the pit of my stomach about being fired from there.  I had never failed at anything so severely before in my life and I wanted to die.  I was miserable for weeks and struggled to find long-term work after that.  After several short stint jobs (teaching assistant, outreach worker, SEN Casework Officer for three months), I finally landed the fixed-term contract with the authority just south of where I live and was there for ten months before landing the post I’ve been in for two years (as of the 1st of August).  I don’t talk about this period of my life much because it caused me so much turmoil and grief.  Not long after losing that job, Paul and I were faced with having to move out of the annexe and move into the house Paul grew up in, with his mother.  The plan had always been for this house to eventually become ours, but we were newly married, I was newly unemployed and had been faced with the biggest rejection I had personally felt in my young adult life.  While one could argue that the rejection from my mother would be more hurtful, she had been gradually rejecting me throughout my life, whereas the job rejection was far more personal and felt much more traumatic.  I think this experience has also reinforced my feelings of being unable to work at a higher level where I’d be managing people… I could not bear the responsibility of causing anyone else that kind of pain.

The psychiatrist said she would not be doing her job properly if she did not address this with me, which I understood and thanked her for because this will ultimately help me be more mindful and recognise things more readily when I find myself feeling down.  Thankfully, she explained how she didn’t think the rejection exclusively explained all my other difficulties.  The other element that stumped them was my ability to read and anticipate from others’ facial expressions, body language, and vocal tones.  I explained that I did train in graduate school to be a social worker who did counselling, as well as studying psychology in undergrad, so it’s hard to say if this is a natural ability or if I have just learned and retained this because of my level of intelligence.

They both said that having read through my information (the many, many pages of it) and speaking with me, there were definite moments where they felt it was clear that I was autistic, but then I’d do something unexpected and sway them back to thinking I wasn’t.  They explained how they have seen many women over time, some blatantly obvious and others who have learned how to mask and cope so well, and that I’m probably at the highest functioning end that they’ve seen – they joked that they’ll need time in a dark room to recuperate from this diagnostic process!! – but that they felt that it would be beneficial for me and my mental health to have a diagnosis at this time, and that if in the future (whether it be the upcoming weeks, months or years) I chose to not disclose it to people or not recognise it in myself anymore, then that would be my choice.  However, I don’t think that is likely to happen, considering that since I had my “moment of clarity” at the Birmingham Autism Show on the 19th of July 2015, I’ve gone through 420 days (or 1 year, 1 month and 24 days) of wondering and seeking validation… and at 14:30 yesterday afternoon, I walked out of that clinic with a smile on my face and a feeling like a massive weight had been lifted off my shoulders.  I walked out into the sunshine with the diagnosis of autism that I had been hoping for.  I feel like while the journey to validation has come to an end, my new journey has just begun: to continue sharing my story, to continue sharing information, to continue adding more to the collective voice of women around the world with autism who may not yet know it or do know it and need help being believed.  We all know our own truths.  This is my truth… tell me yours.

One Hurdle Overcome… One More Left?

Okay so I know I’ve been off the radar again for a little while, so thank you to those of you still hanging in here with me.

Since I last posted about the Autism Shows I attended, I’ve kinda gone into self-preservation mode… working in Special Educational Needs, the end of an academic year is always a trying and manic period of time with schools and parents rushing to get things sorted out for September and us caseworkers get caught in the crossfire.  Whilst I was exceptionally pleased to have had places in special schools obtained for not one but two of my cases (when it was looking unlikely due to lack of spaces), I was finding that my sensory differences were getting the better of me in the office the more stressed and anxious I was feeling.  I have been effectively wearing my sunglasses almost nonstop whilst in the office (only lifting them to the top of my head to speak to a colleague so I could focus better) as well as my iPod (because the noise created in an open-plan office is enough to drive me batty).

I emailed the Autism Assessment Team again on the 5th of July about what kind of time frame I was facing in relation to the Occupational Therapist referral, as I was starting to feel even more acutely anxious about everything.  I reiterated my sensory issues in the office and also wrote the following:

I am so sorely disappointed with everything to do with this diagnostic journey and I had certainly hoped that this would have been resolved already. I simply do not have the financial ability to pay for a private assessment and feel like I’m being treated as a hysterical woman that should not be reacting to things the way I am…  I feel like I’m being punished because I have learned and adapted ‘so well’ over my life thus far because I had no choice but to do so; just because someone has learned to cope does not mean that they don’t experience difficulties at all.

I reiterate again that “the woman in the questionnaire” was the honest and true me… I am experiencing such levels of traumatic despair at the fact that I am not being believed and I do not feel like this is being taken into consideration. I don’t want to go to my GP, break down and get signed off work because all of this being too much for me to deal with, but I almost feel like I have no choice but to do this, even though it won’t make things any better on the work front because the work will still be there, along with everything else!!

I need to know:
a) that the referral to the Occupational Therapist has been made
b) that the appointment will allow full exploration of my sensory differences and strategies to mitigate the stress and anxiety that they cause me
c) what the time frame is for me to be seen because this particular unknown is unbearable

Speaking to my dad about this all, he believes me and agrees that I may very well be autistic and he was astonished that no one from the service contacted him to discuss his questionnaire. I was given the impression that there was nothing of significance in his questionnaire to highlight things that may point to a positive diagnosis; he explained to me that he spent a lot of time on his questionnaire and had fully expected someone to contact him in some way to discuss things further. As such, he will be attending the appointment on the 11th with me and my husband Paul.

Having been to the Autism Shows both in London and Birmingham a few weeks ago has further validated me and given me more fire to pursue this diagnosis. It is very apparent that the further away one lives from London, the harder it is for females to be diagnosed as autistic. If anything, it’s a shame that I attended my appointments prior to attending the Autism Show, because I have come away armed with far more information than I had previously and several well-respected professionals in the field agree that the diagnostic criteria used is based on the young male presentation of Autism and does not take gender variations into consideration, least of all the cultural differences with me being born and raised in America (because I speak perfectly understandable English, I think this element was not taken into consideration at all, as per my letter of the 13th of June).

My mental health should not be suffering as much as it is because of all of this.

Thankfully, I received a response from the OT (I’ll call her Emily) the next day (as I had sent my email outside of office hours).  She said that she was fully booked until late September/early October, but asked if I would be happy to take up any cancellation appointments should they become available.  She also briefly explained what the appointments would entail and that a written report would be provided afterwards.

I wrote back saying that I would be glad to take any cancellation appointments, but that just knowing that it would be late summer/early autumn was extremely helpful; it allowed me to “park” my anxiety so to speak, as there was no point in me staying angsty about it.

Fast forward to Monday the 25th July.  I received an email from Emily saying that a cancellation had come up on Wednesday the 27th July in the afternoon.  I responded straight away saying that I would accept the appointment.

Going back to the same clinic building where I had left so upset and (without wanting to sound too dramatic) a bit traumatised, my anxiety was rapidly climbing upwards, despite me actually feeling relieved that I was finally on my way with the OT component of my diagnostic journey.  I explained this when we got into the room and Emily suggested I try a few assistive items, including rolling balls with rounded-tip spikes on my thighs (where deep pressure receptors are high in concentration – it felt nice on my thighs but not on my hands), weighted lap pads (2kg each – which didn’t do much) and a weighted blanket (7kg – I really liked this one, despite the warm weather on the day).  Emily advised that I only keep the weighted blanket on for about 15-20 minutes and that the effects should last for about an hour or two.  We spoke for a bit, me answering open-ended questions about my sensory sensitivities and sensory-seeking tactics, and after what only seemed like a few minutes, Emily suggested that I take the blanket off… I was absolutely amazed at how calm I felt because it happened completely subconsciously.  When we finished the open-ended questions, we went on to the Adult Sensory Profile questionnaire (Based on the intersection of two continua [neurological threshold and behavioral response/self-regulation], this model describes quadrants identified as Low Registration, Sensation Seeking, Sensory Sensitivity, and Sensation Avoiding), ranking my sensory experiences from 5% or less of the time, 25% of the time, 50% of the time, 75% of the time, or 95% or more of the time (there were word associations with each ranking that I can’t remember but the numbers helped me personally be able to rank myself with each question).  When we were done with the questionnaire, we scheduled a follow-up appointment the next week to discuss the outcome of the questionnaire, how sensory processing works and strategies to help me moderate my sensory differences (because there’s no “cure” for it, just management, which I understood).

Fast forward again to Thursday the 4th August – my second appointment.  I was given the validation that I do experience some sensory differences which are made more apparent/acute depending on my mood (i.e. the more stressed I am, the more sensory sensitive/sensation avoidant I become), which made sense.  We talked through the report and strategies and how the body processes sensory information and where we ideally would like to be in a middle ground between agitated (extreme high end) and lethargic (extreme low end).  Emily also provided me with a list of suggestions for the workplace, because it was clearly identified that I was able to cope in office spaces before but that this particular office space (since we moved to it in October 2015) has been progressively having an impact on my mental well-being the more my sensory differences have been agitated.  I was grateful for the list of strategies/suggestions given and looked forward to discussing them with my manager the next day [side note: chatting about it with my manager was so positive; I sent her an email summary of our discussion which she is going to send to HR to see what can be done to help me out – will update when things happen!].  The suggestions for modulating my sensory differences were quite extensive, many of which I do to some degree already, and I will actively try to put these strategies to use and hopefully improve things for myself.

I left still preoccupied about my third appointment with the psychiatrist next week on the 11th with my Dad & Paul… she said that the appointment should help, regardless of the outcome.  I said again how I’ve been waiting a very long time and in that time have constructed this identity around being an autistic woman, which felt shattered to pieces after the second appointment.  Emily was sort of hinting at how a label of autism could sometimes be more detrimental than helpful and that I should think if it could be anything else…

One of the questions in the first appointment was if I had experienced any abuse in my life, which I flatly replied, “no.”  When Emily asked again in the second appointment if I had experienced any sort of abuse or trauma, and I made the throwaway comment that my mother cutting me off eight years ago probably wasn’t great and that through this process I’ve begun to wonder if she too is autistic… it was then that Emily said I should think if it could be anything else.

I had a 25-minute drive home ahead of me, and when I was sat in a queue of traffic trying to make it onto a main road near a very busy roundabout, a little gremlin popped out of a dark corner of my brain… something that had come up both when I was working as a social worker and in SEN… attachment disorder can present with a lot of the same characteristics as autism.  My heart sank.  Could all of this be attachment issues??  Does my mother have attachment issues which permeated her parenting??  It became far too much to bear.  I got home and was hardly able to speak.  I handed Paul the report and the workplace suggestions and sat silently on the sofa with the TV off.  Paul read the report and thought it all looked really positive, so was naturally confused as to why I seemed so out-of-sorts.  When I briefly explained, he didn’t know what to say.  I turned to my phone and sent a message to my fellow American expat Katherine (mentioned in Birmingham Autism Show) because if anyone I knew would know anything about this, it would be her.

I have to leave it there for now… more very soon. xx

I’m sick of being sick.

Hello to my handful of followers.  Sorry it’s been a while… took a chance with attending a party for our friends’ daughter’s first birthday, aaaaand as to be expected, there were sniffly babies (January, ya know) and I came down with a viral infection which knocked me out of work for a week.  I’ve still got the cough lingering, but it’s nowhere near as bad as it was a few weeks ago.  Needless to say, I’ve been trying to get myself feeling better and back into my routine, which has been thrown off by being poorly.

I’ve been feeling a bit lost as well.  I sang with Rock Choir locally for about three years and made the decision to leave at the end of 2014, and had the break from singing from January to August 2015.  I miss the friends I had in Rock Choir, even if they were only “I see them once a week to have a laugh and a sing” friends.

I think I’m experiencing a bit of after-effect trauma (without trying to sound dramatic, but I cannot think of another word for it) from having to leave the a capella group that I had started attending in late August [see 2015… over already?].  While they were lovely to listen to, I was getting bored with sitting doing nothing and not being up there singing.  The expectation for perfection was quite high, which I didn’t think was realistic for me to achieve consistently in the long term and began to intimidate me and make me doubt my singing abilities.  The final straw for me was being told off for sitting and reading my Kindle one evening because some people on the risers said it was “distracting”… I don’t know how sitting still reading could be distracting, but like I said, it was a long way to go to sit and do nothing, so I thought I’d just read because they weren’t singing anything I could participate with.  I haven’t felt that sinking horrible feeling since I was in school being told off for some slight like chatting when we should have been quiet or something.

I had befriended several of the women on Facebook in my time being there, and I found that several had unfriended me after I decided to leave. The level that this actually upset me surprised me, because I figured, on the one hand, I was quite unlikely to see any of them ever again, but on the other, I was not adverse to continuing to support them by attending future shows, etc. and I was hurt that rather than messaging me to see what was up (because I was too distraught to message them all individually), they just unfriended (or in one case blocked!) me. I don’t know if I’ve just sabotaged it all by being truthful about my feelings about what happened, but I guess I’ll never know.

Following that, I was trying to find a middle ground between Rock Choir and that a capella group.  I stumbled across an a cappella community choir, but one that’s not about perfection, but just singing with other people.  I attended one session in mid-January and have not been back since as I became poorly, which has had me coughing a fair amount, thus hindering my ability to sing.  Because it’s a community choir, a lot of the people who attend are local residents, so I feel a bit of an outsider because I’m not part of that immediate community; I never felt that with Rock Choir, because I know my back row buddies both traveled from even further than me.  The leader of the community choir was so lovely and was very welcoming; I guess because I lost my momentum after the first session because of being poorly and I’m questioning my return because I’m still not sure if it’s a proper fit for me.

Why I came to the very difficult decision about leaving Rock Choir in the first place was because I was just not enjoying the song selection anymore, and it was a lot of money to pay to not be 100% enjoying it anymore.  I stuck with it for so long because I enjoyed the social aspect most, but also I suppose because it became routine.  Now, I find myself in a position of, “Do I keep trying this community choir, or do I go back to Rock Choir?”

I don’t like this feeling that I feel.  I just feel icky inside, that I don’t like myself, that I feel like I’ve somehow done something horribly wrong.  I was really surprised at some of the people who unfriended me from the a capella group… ones that I thought I had struck a bit of a friendship with.  But I guess it’s a bit like an exclusive club; you’re either in or out, and I worked my way out.  Part of me wishes I hadn’t even tried because I’d have been spared the emotional turmoil.  But on the other hand, that’s a very slippery slope into becoming a total recluse.

I just wish I knew the answer.