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.

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

Birmingham Autism Show

Another helpful day of information gathering to bolster my case for diagnosis.

The sessions today were different from the ones I attended last week in London… well, with one exception.

I finally got to look at the artwork from Willard Wigan – seeing is believing!!  Seeing all the photos in his slideshow last week were incredible, but to see the needle underneath the high-powered microscope on its own and then looking through to see it with your own eyes… it was amazing.  I actually sat in on his talk again at the end of the day because I enjoyed it so much!!

The first session was Allies to the Neurodiversity Movement… the speaker was a transgender woman and while she had a lot to say and was very passionate about it, though I couldn’t help but notice several spelling and grammar errors in the PowerPoint presentation, which detracted from the full impact for me.  She also made some quite controversial remarks (particularly one around the Holocaust which I don’t want to repeat) which made me feel a bit uncomfortable.

The next talk was by Dr. Glenys Jones, psychologist and researcher in the Autism Centre for Education & Research (ACER) at the University of Birmingham, talking about Autism Through the Lifespan.  Quite informative, highlighted again the difficulties of obtaining a diagnosis in adulthood, especially for women.

The next talk was the lovely woman I befriended at last year’s Autism Show in Birmingham, speaker and fellow expat Katherine Green (her own blog is at Wishing on Jupiter).  The subject of her talk was Autistic Girls and Romantic Attachments – a subject I related to very well!! 🙂  I have always had a quite intense attraction to boys with certain characteristics… one of them even married me. 😉  I always had a sense that my intense feelings were probably greater than other girls my age, but I always kept it quite private and didn’t go about talking incessantly about boys I thought were cute, even though I could very easily have if given the opportunity.

After her talk, we went off to have a bite to eat and a catch-up for about 45 minutes, which was absolutely lovely.  Both of us were blown away by the result of the EU Referendum vote and chatted about that and other miscellaneous things.

The next talk was Women & Girls with Autism by Dr. Elisabeth Hurley from Autism West Midlands.  It was quite interesting to hear that genetics may have an explanation as to why girls may not present as severely with Autism than males – because of the second X chromosome perhaps being ‘protective’ in some way.  She also appeared to have full confidence in how sociability does not mean that a girl does not have Autism – all down to GENDER SOCIALISATION, a topic that I wrote about a fair amount when I was a graduate student.  It always angered me how social standards were so high for girls… I never wished I was a boy, but I wished it was more balanced.  She has edited a book called Ultraviolet Voices, comprised of personal stories from women on the spectrum, and co-wrote one called The Good & Bad Science of Autism, both of which I’m looking forward to reading.

I ended up missing the BBC Neurodiversity Project talk as I ended up speaking with a woman who was listening in the previous session and heard my question about improving diagnostic processes for women, after briefly outlining the uphill struggle that I’m having.  She had a few suggestions, all of which I have already exhausted, but we ended up chatting for so long that the entire session ran through!  We both sat down together to hear Willow Holloway speak about The Autistic Women’s Empowerment Project, which was another positive session; however, she was having difficulties with her PowerPoint presentation, jumping ahead and back on slides several times which was quite distracting and made the talk hard to follow in places.

When that talk was done, I went back to the Autism Matters Theatre to hear Willard Wigan speak again. 🙂

I think I will be doing the two shows again next year because it was great to get to see so many different speakers and to learn so much about Autism and other people’s experiences, especially those of other women.

London Autism Show, Day 2

Amazing what ten hours of sleep can do to make you feel like a human again. 🙂

It was a bit difficult getting to sleep last night because it sounded like there was a helicopter hovering for aaaages… whether it had to do with my hotel being adjacent to the London City Airport or not may remain a mystery, but it felt like it was hovering in the same vicinity for a long time (i.e. not flying away anywhere else any time soon).  Being in a king sized bed by myself is a rare treat, so I used the two spare pillows as cuddle pillows – one on each side of me so if I flipped over, there was one there waiting for me.  Lush. 🙂

After a nice partial English breakfast (because I don’t think you can call it a “full English” if you don’t like beans, mushrooms, or grilled tomato!), I walked back to the ExCeL Centre rather than grabbing a bus from right outside the hotel; it was a lovely morning, crisp air without being too cold and a bit overcast enough that it wasn’t super sunny, but the sun was breaking through enough to make it just seem nice and peaceful.  There were loads of people running along the river behind the ExCeL Centre too… I don’t generally get the appeal of running, but when running along the river like that, I think I could kinda get it… still doesn’t mean I’m gonna take it up anytime soon! 😛

Arrived just in time for ‘How learning impacts life: how cognitive learning in the early years affects education, transition and adult life’… if I’m honest, I was hoping for a bit more out of this one, with such a grandiose title like that.  Granted, it was only 20 minutes long, but I didn’t learn anything new; it was basically a rehash of many of the talks I’ve heard already.

The updates and initiatives round-up was interesting because Geoffrey Maddrell (OBE, Chairman of Research Autism) because he mentioned a shift in the direction of putting more research focus on its prevalence in females — YES!! It’s finally being recognised by those who can do something about it!!

I ended up missing the Brain in Hand talk because I went back to speak to Sarah Wild, the headteacher at Limpsfield Grange.  I had given her the link to this blog yesterday (if you’re reading this now, HI! :)) and it was nice to speak to her without being stupidly emotional like I was yesterday.  Honestly, she is possibly one of the nicest people I have ever had the privilege to meet and speak to at some length (and I’m not just saying that because she may be reading this blog!) and I wish I had a teacher like her that I could have gone and spoken to when I was feeling wobbly in high school especially.  Looking back on my high school years, there wasn’t really “that one teacher” who I could go to whenever I needed it.  Oh sure, there were teachers I could talk to, but not like this… it’s difficult to articulate right now.  If anything, I think my time chatting to her over the last couple of days helped make this experience all the more worthwhile.  She validated me more in probably a half hour (collectively) than the Speech & Language Therapist and Cognitive Psychologist I saw at the ASC Diagnostic Assessment Team.  I showed her my timetable of talks and my step-by-step directions that I drew up to get me to the ExCeL Centre on my own, and she asked if I had shown these in my assessment, which I said that I had.  She asked me, “did you need this to be able to get here today? Could you have gotten here without it?” and I said quite simply, “no.”  I need this level of planning and virtual rehearsal to be able to do anything remotely like this (if anything, this was the biggest single trek I’ve done on my own) otherwise, I would never get out of my town.  I don’t understand how this wasn’t taken into account in my appointments… but then again, I showed them briefly, but the need for these tools and strategies weren’t discussed any further… because clearly, my sociability overshadows all of this. {grrrrrrrumble}

The next talk I saw was the whole reason I came to London’s Autism Show in the first place: Lana Grant, author of From Here to Maternity, talking about pregnancy and motherhood from an autistic perspective.  WOW.  Simply WOW.  I’ll rewind a bit to give context – I saw that she was down to speak on the Saturday of the Birmingham Autism Show, and when I realised that my tattoo appointment had been booked for the same day, I was gutted.  So I looked at the programme for the London show and saw that she was listed as a speaker there too, so that was how I came to pushing myself to come all the way out to London on my own and do this – the motivation to see her speak for half an hour was motivation enough (and there were several other sessions about Autism & Females so it was going to be worthwhile altogether anyway).

I’ll be perfectly honest, and in an autism context it makes perfect sense, but I am terrified about having a baby.  Petrified.  I’m of an age where many of my peers are having their first, second or sometimes even third baby, and I feel like there is something wrong with me in that, while I am aware of the instinctual part of my brain which is saying, “C’mon girl, you’re not getting any younger here…” the ‘rational’/Aspie part of my brain is saying, “Are you serious? You and Paul have a good thing here, you have your routines, you have the cat, you have a glorious bed that you LOVE sleeping in because you LOVE SLEEP… are you seriously thinking of chucking that in so that you can have a tiny screaming, crying, pooping baby to keep you from doing anything for yourself ever again??”  I love being an ‘Auntie Cherry’ in that our friends’ or my cousin’s kids look to me and Paul as Auntie and Uncle and they love it when we come around and play with them while trying to maintain some sort of ‘normal’ adult conversation with their parents.  And people have said to me more than once that I’d make a great mother because my caring motherly instinct is very apparent (which heartens me, considering that my own mother clearly is missing out on that attribute) – hell, even in the dorms at University I was called “Mama”.  But what I try to hide from people are my strong sensory aversions to babyhood: dirty nappies, spit-up, snot, general stickiness (how do kids get so damn sticky!?!)… makes me either cringe or want to hurl.  This is why I wanted to see Lana speak: to tell me how she’s done it and managed it!!

Lana talked about how it is a time of massive transition and extra challenges.  She said that she has six children and was diagnosed with Asperger’s before her sixth was born, so she was able to take more ownership over what she experienced whilst armed with her diagnosis, challenging the “machine/production line of the medical field” moving from one step to the next to the next, powerless to influence anything in relation to one’s additional needs.  When looking into information about pregnancy and motherhood for women with autism, all she could find were bogus articles about what to do and not do during pregnancy to prevent autism, hence why she wrote her book about her experience [I’m SOOO buying that for my Kindle!!].  The prevailing element she spoke of was the lack of understanding and mindfulness from medical professionals and nothing being done to mitigate her massively high levels of anxiety.

Lana also spoke about social situations imposed upon pregnant women and new mothers – antenatal classes, mother & baby groups – and how she had been incorrectly diagnosed with postnatal depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder; she didn’t feel depressed, but felt that she didn’t understand the same feeling that everyone else around her seemed to feel.  This all makes perfect sense to me and mirrors my exact feelings.  She also talked about the sensory processing and the overload that various experiences can bring along with it – smells, noise, lights, tactile experiences – all of which she was spot on with my own anxiety.  The final message was: “Pregnancy and motherhood has been the hardest but the most amazing thing [she has] ever done.”  I have sort of reconciled that Paul and I will most likely try for a baby in the not too distant future, but only when I’m feeling 100% ready, and I have come to terms that if we do get pregnant, we may just have one child.  I cannot foresee being able to cope with more than that at the present time, but perhaps in time our thoughts on the subject will change.  I asked her about the Facebook support group she started and asked if someone like myself (not yet diagnosed, not yet a mother but considering it) could join, and she said “Absolutely”, so I’ve requested to join that group.  I am so glad that this session was what I was expecting and more; it completely justifies the expensive weekend I’ve just had. 🙂

Straight after that session, I went into the ‘From school humiliation to internationally acclaimed artist’ talk by Willard Wigan MBE, micro-sculptor with autism.  WOW.  His sculptures are small enough to fit in the eye of a needle – and the detail!! It’s unbelievable.  Check out his website (link above) to see some of his works.  Unfortunately, I had such a tight timetable that when I did have free time to look at the few samples of his work available, they were either occupied by other people (yesterday) or they were gone (today)!! I will have to make it a point to see them in Birmingham.  The images he used in his presentation were incredible, but I do feel like it’s a case of “you need to see it with your own eyes to believe it”!!  His talk was brilliant and funny; it really is amazing how he has turned around being told that he was stupid by his teachers to being commissioned by the Queen herself to make a replica of the Crown Jewels which fits on the head of a pin.  Simply staggering.

The next session – the top ten autism research questions – was interesting enough, but I was disappointed that autism & females did not appear within this top ten.  However, Autistica did appear to go through a lot to get the views of adults with autism, their families and clinicians to narrow it down.

Because I know you’re interested, the top ten questions are:
10. How should service delivery for autistic people be improved and adapted in order to meet their needs?
9. How can sensory processing in autism be better understood?
8. How can we encourage employers to apply person-centred interventions and support to help autistic people maximise their potential and performance in the workplace?
7. How can autism diagnostic criteria be made more relevant for the adult population?  And how do we ensure that autistic adults are appropriately diagnosed?
6. How can parents and family members be supported/educated to care for and better understand an autistic relative?
5. Which environments/supports are most appropriate in terms of achieving the best education/life/social skills outcomes in autistic people?
4. Which interventions reduce anxiety in autistic people?
3. What are the most effective ways to support/provide social care for autistic adults?
2. Which interventions are effective in the development of communication/language skills in autism?

and the number one question is….

1. Which interventions improve mental health or reduce mental health problems in autistic people?  How should mental health interventions be adapted for the needs of autistic people?

It will be interesting to see how these questions come to be answered in due course.

The next session was about managing Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA) in the workplace; I’ll be honest, I think I was reaching a point of information saturation because I spent most of the session colouring in a cloth bag from Helsey Group [there is an image of a blank canvas on an easel with a girl stood to the left and a boy stood to the right; the bag had a small set of markers in it so one could draw what they wanted on the canvas]… I used the markers to make a pretty rainbow and a rainbow-coloured heart.  I also coloured in the boy and the girl to resemble Paul and I. #Don’tJudgeMe. 😛  It was interesting to see what strengths PDA can provide: people skills (at least on a superficial level); taking leadership (often from a desire to be “in control”); adaptability (either to a situation or ‘playing’ a certain role); and team management (how to best use people’s skills effectively).

After that was a brief session by the Director of External Affairs and Social Change at the National Autistic Society, talking primarily about the reach of the Too Much Information campaign run in April [which I blogged about in Join the Thunderclap].  The NAS are going quite good work at spreading awareness and acceptance of autism in society – not just tolerance of it.

I will interject here with a side anecdote: The worst thing about these final two sessions was that a guy ended up sitting on a bench near me and he STUNK MASSIVELY of B.O.  Talk about an assault on my olfactory system – he was quite fidgety and EVERY TIME HE MOVED, I got another waft of his stank [not a typo].  I tried breathing through my mouth, but that didn’t feel natural, so I started chewing gum, hoping that the strong minty flavour would overpower my sense of smell.  I was quite disheartened when he didn’t leave for the final session… honest to goodness, how can someone not be aware that they smell that bad??  And how can people close to them not say anything?!?!  I just cannot understand it for the life of me.  I get self-conscious when I get any slight smell which might be coming off of me… ugh. I just can’t.  Anyway………

The final session of the weekend was another one about autism & females, this time from the Director of Autism at the Priory Group.  Even more validation/vindication about my being convinced of my diagnosis, despite what I’ve been told thus far.  Girls are more passively avoidant than their male peers who can be more “in your face”.  42% of girls with ASD are misdiagnosed with different disorders (e.g. personality disorders, mood disorders, depression, anxiety, OCD, even anorexia); this is a staggering figure – nearly half!!  Girls are more verbally communicative, less violent, more demand-avoidant over time, less rigid and over-focused (although I’d say I’m pretty rigid, but that might be more in relation to my sensory issues).  Clinicians need to look beyond the obvious for obsessive behaviour, problems with multi-processing, sensory issues, demand avoidance and those with a “real” friend.  Again, it was reiterated that there is a bias in diagnostic tools and protocols which are based on “extreme male” characteristics; shyness and oversensitivity are not included in the diagnostic criteria, the questions are not sensitive enough and do not take into account that girls imitate social skills better and that girls are praised for showing love, kindness and empathy (as it is suggested that girls on the spectrum are hyper-empathetic and feel too much as opposed to too little).

I stopped over again at the Limpsfield Grange stand to say goodbye and to say that I will keep things updated on my blog, and was kindly told that I can keep an eye out on the website and to keep in touch because I’m “part of the community and [I’m] not alone in this”.  That was so nice to hear. 🙂

I camped out for about half an hour near an outlet to charge up my phone before setting off on my journey out of London, because I had taken loads of photos and notes so the battery just about died.  Then I had the fun experience of a bus replacement service for the DLR, as it was closed for planned maintenance.  I hate standing on public transport, but especially on a bus because sudden stops which send you juddering forward are so disorienting and horrible.  Thankfully it wasn’t too terribly long to get from Custom House to Canning Town where I then took the Tube out to Victoria station and then caught the Oxford Tube coach out of London.  I hadn’t had anything proper for lunch (just a millionaire shortbread slice and a Coke) and I didn’t stop to pick anything up before getting the coach, as my motivation to get home was greater than that for quelling my hunger.

I had another sensory assault on the coach wherein the group of three women (who really were behaving like teenagers; I reckon they were near my age) were chatting away so loudly that I put my newly-acquired pair of ear defenders on over my earbud headphones (listening to the Manics, of course) which worked amazingly well to silence them so I wasn’t blasting my eardrums with my iPod.  I spent most of the coach journey typing this blog on my Kindle Fire with my little portable Bluetooth keyboard, which was an efficient use of time. 😉  Then suddenly I got a horrible smell in my nose which I soon realised was nail polish… and sure enough, despite the fact that the coach journey was quite bumpy (I had to keep sliding my Kindle back into place as it doesn’t attach to the keyboard), one of the women across the aisle from me was actually painting her nails – WHO DOES THAT ON A BUS?!?!?  I literally could not believe it.  I just glared at her and her friends and carried on working.  Thankfully she didn’t have it open for too long, but honestly, if I wasn’t so self-conscious (and not wanting to stand out even more because of my still-strong American accent) I would have said something along the lines of “I have strong sensory issues and the smell of that is really making me feel unwell; can you please put it away?” but I felt like my shy high school self again and saw the situation play out in my head with them being arsey like popular girls would be and just refuse and carry on.  She might have been perfectly nice and understanding about it, but I did not have the courage to find out.

I think this is probably the longest blog I’ve written.  If you’ve made it this far, congratulations for sticking with it, though there’s no prize for finishing it other than being able to go back to whatever productive thing you could otherwise be doing! 🙂  I’m looking forward to the Birmingham Autism Show next Friday to see a few other talks which clashed with my timetable here, and most importantly I’m looking forward to actually seeing Willard Wigan’s work (nice alliteration, eh?)!! 😀

Take care, folks. xx

London Autism Show, Day 1

So, I woke up at 4:40 this morning to get dressed and drive to Oxford to get the coach to London and managed to navigate the Tube (after pre-planning it all, of course, with each Tube line identified, which direction of travel and which stops to get off at) and DLR (a first for me!) to get to the ExCeL Centre in east London.  It has been a long day, but I’m going to persevere and write up my thoughts now while they’re fresh in my mind.

Widgit Software presented about using symbols (i.e. Communicate In Print) and announced that the new version will be released in September.  Quite similar to Makaton symbols, but a bit more colourful and descriptive.  Then a short session about Dyscalculia and how children on the spectrum can struggle with understanding numbers and maths… I was hoping for insight as to why I was good at math in school but still to this day cannot do mental arithmetic to save my life.  I then jumped over to Michael Barton’s talk (author of It’s Raining Cats & Dogs and A Different Kettle of Fish) about surviving at school and succeeding at work.  I remember seeing him speak at last year’s show in Birmingham; his books are about literal interpretations of language and how confusing these phrases can be for people on the spectrum.  I’ll admit, a lot of these phrases I know because they have been explained to me (“wears her heart on her sleeve”, “laughed my head off” etc.) but the one phrase I always have to look up is “butter wouldn’t melt”… I literally only looked it up the other day and I still can’t remember what it means.

After that one, I was keen to see the Speaker of the House of Commons, Rt Hon John Bercow MP provide an exclusive personal perspective on being the father of an autistic son… but when I got into the Autism Matters Theatre, the next session’s slides were already on the screen… they appeared to have changed the timings without any notification, or he just wasn’t able to come… either way, that was disappointing.  I went to grab an early bite of lunch (as breakfast was at 5am) and then saw Tom Bowes speak (quite energetically!) about echolalia improving socialisation.

After a little break mixed with wandering around and having a little sit down and checking on my Sims (yes, I’ll admit now that The Sims FreePlay is my version of Minecraft – just yesterday I created a house to replicate the Morgendorffer family home from Daria – don’t judge me! 🙂 ), I then went to see a talk I was very much looking forward to – Autism and Girls, featuring the head teacher and students from Limpsfield Grange School.  The girls who spoke (two current students in Y8 & Y9 and a former student now in college) did so unbelievably well… I could see they were anxious speaking in front of such a large crowd, but they handled it beautifully.  It is so important for these girls to have a voice in the autism world because (as I’ve experienced first-hand) females have a harder time being taken seriously and need to feel valued and worthwhile.  This school was featured in an ITV documentary last year [I quoted a poem from one of the students shown on the programme in my post titled Disclosure… and relief.] and I could see myself in several of the students there… like, different aspects appearing in different girls at varying intensities.  Later on in the day, just before the show closed, I went up to the stall and spoke to the head teacher, congratulating her students on their job well done speaking in front of the audience today and thanking her for doing the documentary last year, explaining how it was broadcast not long after I had the realisation that Autism/Asperger’s seemed to make sense to explain why I’ve always felt awkward in myself my whole life and it supported me to request a diagnostic assessment.  She was so lovely to speak to – I was a bit tearful because ALL THE EMOTIONS (and I was a very tired girl after a very long day) and she said that there were a few lovely women who came up to speak to her with similar stories, so I can imagine this has been a monumental and rewarding day for her and for the school.  I wish there was provision local to where I live like Limpsfield Grange, because they do such great things for girls on the spectrum [and other needs too].

After that session was back to back sessions about autism equality in the workplace: removing barriers and challenging discrimination, which was quite interesting [I may write a separate blog from my notes on that one, which may help me at work].  Then was a session which was added late to the programme: Diagnosing Autism Spectrum Conditions in Adulthood, presented by a neurodevelopmental specialist from the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust.  Let’s just say that it stirred up a lot of the still-raw emotions from the last two weeks.

After that session ended I had a 20 minute break until my next session and I went to speak to this specialist at the booth… aaaaaaaand became overcome with emotion [this was actually a couple hours before the emotional breakdown described above… conclusion: I do not function well on little sleep… I was verrrrry apologetic for being in a state].  We went and spoke outside for a few minutes and she was so lovely.  I explained what happened between the two appointments and how I felt after and wrote to the assessors.  [Update for you guys because I didn’t have time to blog about it last night, but I’ve had an email back and they have offered me a third appointment which will be with a psychiatrist, recommending that I bring Paul with me… but it’s not until 11th August – 8 weeks from yesterday.  Not exactly great in terms of timescales, eh???? 😥 ]  I asked what my options were, and I was advised to perhaps speak to Advocacy For All (as they have an autism-specific team) and go for the third appointment.  If I still feel that I’ve not been given the fairest assessment, then I could request from my GP to be referred to their service, as it provides nationwide support (not exclusive to South London).  I was relieved to know that I still had options through the NHS, as I just cannot afford to go for a private assessment.  I reiterated that I only want a diagnosis for personal validation and to put me in a context for what I need to get by in the workplace – not for any untoward reasons (claiming benefits or anything).

After all that emotional deluge, I saw another talk about teaching autistic girls, this time from an autistic teacher – she was another adult woman with a diagnosis that, upon first seeing her speak, you would not have assumed she was on the spectrum.  This, if anything, just reinforces my strong feeling that my assessors got it wrong and didn’t fully take the female element into consideration!!  The final session I attended was called ‘Turning the Triad on its head’, but to be honest it just repeated a lot of the same things I’d heard during all of the sessions (focusing on strengths, not defining by difficulties, etc.).

The recurring theme throughout the day was: if you meet one person on the spectrum, you have met one person on the spectrum; no two people are the same!!

It’s now 9pm and I’m completely zonked.  I had a lovely pizza for dinner at a little Italian wine bar while reading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban on my Kindle (not my first time reading it) while it rained as I didn’t fancy a 20 minute walk to the hotel in the rain.  Checked into my hotel room, had a shower, and started writing this!  Now that my thoughts are well and truly decanted, I’m gonna climb into bed and hopefully fall asleep before 10pm. Day 2 tomorrow, and I will follow up with a similar analysis. 😉

Mulling it over…

I have written a letter which I intend to email to the ASC Diagnostic Team tomorrow for the attention of the Speech & Language Therapist and Clinical Psychologist I saw. The majority of it is below, modified for clarity in the context of this blog:

I feel that perhaps enough wasn’t taken seriously or discussed with me in depth from my written questionnaire; you both said that “the person in the room was different from the person in the questionnaire”. I think this is because I have had to “put this mask on so much that it has become my face” and that my most truthful self is the one written about in my questionnaire; it’s too painful for me to reveal that person in a room with complete strangers, though perhaps it would have been better to do so because of the outcome of the two appointments.

I feel that I was discredited because I’m too sociable. I feel that, despite my indicating early on in the first session that my American-ness may work against me here, this was disregarded. Also, being the firstborn in my family could also be an indicator as to why I am outgoing, but being outgoing is not a contra-indicator of ASC; being outgoing is a big feature of being from America – if we don’t take initiative and present as “confident”, we’re classified as “weird”. In England, one is allowed to be quiet and more reserved. I don’t believe that the reality of how I was taught to be was fully taken into account, and certainly, my more ASC-type traits did not come out in just seven hours of observation.

Watch Jennifer Cook O’Toole on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/user/AsperkidsVideos) – remind you of anyone? She is a well-known writer with ASC and is very American and outgoing, and probably would have been undiagnosed in the UK.

I have related my experience to a fellow female expat who is a writer and public speaker with ASC (I will refer to her as G); I have been chatting with her periodically online since meeting at the Autism Show in Birmingham last summer. She indicated that I may need a longer than average assessment and this would be in keeping with the Equality Act of 2010, which would argue that reasonable adjustments need to be made so that I am not inadvertently discriminated against because I am from a different culture. She said a longer assessment would be totally reasonable to ask for as 50% of the diagnosis rests on how I interact socially and I’m from another country where social interaction is reinforced differently (remember that I was 23 when I moved to the UK, so beyond my formative years). This is especially true if your service is considering denying the diagnosis based on my social presentation. As you know, women with ASC are good at hiding their traits, and American women will be exceptionally good at hiding them. G’s first diagnostic appointment resulted in her being told that she did not have ASC, but following further appointments for a second opinion, she was eventually diagnosed. I did not think that I would have to go through the same uphill struggle that she has; she is also the one who shared the YouTube link above.

Not much was discussed regarding how I felt about being on the periphery of my social group at school, despite me explaining how traumatic it was finishing high school and just completely obliterating my relationships; that is not typical behaviour, especially since I couldn’t identify a particular incident or altercation which caused it. G also read the extended version of my questionnaire and said the following (this was via email communication):

You mentioned feeling like you were on the periphery of your social group at school.  You mentioned being bullied and taking times away from people.  There was some detail but try to dig out more. It may be hard to do with you not being able to recognise and retell the specifics of what transpired or what went wrong. It’s hard to know at which moment you were “being weird” if you don’t know when you’re “being weird”.

A person on the spectrum would be bad at explaining exactly when they “got it wrong” socially, why they didn’t click with the group as well as others. I imagine this is the most difficult part for you to dissect, but this also is the part that your “outgoing” personality masks the most.  They aren’t seeing the social disconnect in the room, so you need to dissect past social exchanges and explain where it has happened.

It’s hard for me to recall back this far, as the high school fallout occurred 12 years ago and my memory is patchy at best. The only things I seem to recall in clear detail are things that had very strong emotions attached, usually of guilt or shame, which I have worked hard to cast from my mind because they are so debilitating. When I think about finishing high school, I can only remember feeling very anxious, uncertain and out of control. I think I cast away my friendships from the past 4-7 years [middle school into high school] at that point because that gave me some semblance of control, despite it completely isolating me between graduation and starting afresh at university in the dorms. I did very little that summer break because all my friends must have grown weary of trying to engage me and dealing with my flat-out refusal. Like I indicated on my questionnaire, I’ve “virtually reconnected” with most of these friends, but we have not spoken of what occurred at the end of high school, and while they are on my Facebook friends list, we do not talk like friends do. We may exchange birthday greetings, but that’s about it – how much more superficial can this be?? We have reconnected as “someone that I used to know” but that’s about it. Does that help?? Just because I appeared on the surface to get along with them all fine in my early years, doesn’t what happened in adolescence obscure that somewhat?

G also indicated that I wrote a lot about rigidity and a need for sameness and routine in my life in ways that have nothing to do with my sensory issues, and she said, “I don’t know how anyone can dismiss these.”

She indicated certain points from my questionnaire under Current Difficulties which jumped out at her:

  • needing sameness when living with Paul’s mother
  • I hate answering the phone, especially at work
  • I struggle being in overcrowded spaces where personal space can be an issue, especially any store which becomes crowded with shoppers prompts me to leave
  • social blindness when out in public
  • group conversations, especially being interrupted and unable to finish my thought or story – present in childhood and adulthood.
  • I can understand sarcasm, but only when context is given
  • perfectionism, which I had always attributed to being a “typical first born”, which can explain why I am so outgoing
  • as a child, I was very particular about keeping my toys in order and in pristine condition; my dad’s questionnaire probably didn’t say anything about this and he would probably have put it down to having taught me to respect my belongings… it was much more than that.
  • I preferred playing alone a lot of the time and didn’t regularly have friends over; I also did not (and still do not) initiating interactions and prefer someone else taking the lead and joining in when appropriate. I do not feel confident in initiating but will only do so when no one else will because I’m frustrated and want to get on with whatever the task is because I can’t take the awkward silence anymore.
  • you had me talk in detail about the bullying that I endured; I thought surely this would have mattered more strongly – again, just because my dad didn’t pick up on it does not mean it didn’t happen; I was quite private and didn’t tell my parents everything or would just tell them things were fine
  • particular about colour-coding things, especially in a ‘rainbow’ order
  • need for symmetry and matching
  • borderline ritualistic about numbers – I even described how Paul’s and my wedding date was “pleasant” – no one else I know has done that
  • resorting to putting on the same movies or TV series that I’ve seen multiple times to have on in the background – I can’t even begin to guess how many times I’ve watched and re-watched Daria on my Amazon Fire TV box or on my Fire Tablet when getting ready (for work or going out)
  • parking space at work and parking near an edge so I can find my car again
  • gauging the speed of fast-moving objects
  • handwriting and drawing – having an awkward grip and not ever being picked up on for it
  • problems with hormonal birth control – although others might not register this, but she agrees this demonstrates a fragile chemistry and I felt was quite compelling

G also attached some PowerPoint slides called Missed Diagnosis or Misdiagnosis? Girls and Women in the Autism Spectrum from Dr Judith Gould, Director of the NAS Lorna Wing Centre for Autism. I will attach it with this letter but I am going to highlight some of the stronger points here:

  • Historically there has been a strong gender bias of more males than females; as a result, professionals are less likely to diagnose girls/women even when symptoms and behaviours are evident
  • Asperger (1944) suggested autistic traits in females become evident only after puberty
    • My dad moved out of the family home when I was 13 years old and only saw me once every two weeks for several years, so he would not have necessarily noticed these traits and would assume my stroppiness whenever he came to visit was because of being a teenager rather than anything else presenting differently to my peers. I would agree that difficulties became more present after moving up through middle school into high school, culminating in the friendship breakdown at the end of my senior year of high school.
  • There is still a strong gender bias towards diagnosing boys (linked with descriptions in the International Classification Systems)
  • Social Interaction
    • Girls more able to follow social actions by delayed imitation; they observe children and copy them – masks symptoms
    • They are on the periphery of social activities [which I highlighted]
    • Girls more aware and feel a need to interact socially
    • When involved in social play are often led by peers rather than initiating contact [I agree with this – I rarely initiate because I don’t feel confident enough to do so.]
    • Girls more socially immature and passive than typically developing peers
    • In primary school more likely to be ‘mothered’ by other girls but bullied in secondary school [YES to the second part for sure; I can’t remember being ‘mothered’ in elementary school.]
  • Social Communication
    • Little difference in acquiring speech in girls and boys
    • Girls generally have superior linguistic abilities to boys of a similar cognitive level
    • In society, girls are expected to be social in their communication but they do not “do social chit-chat or make meaningless comments to facilitate social communication” [when I do make social chit-chat, it’s to quell the awkward feelings when not much is being said… that’s more unbearable for me than sitting in complete silence when there’s a lull in the conversation.]
  • Social Imagination
    • When involved in solitary doll play, they have a ‘script’ and may reproduce a real event or a scene from a book or film [I vaguely recall playing with my Barbies with an almost soap opera-like script, as when I was at home with my mother, she would regularly watch The Young & The Restless.]
    • There is a lack of reciprocity in their social play and can be controlling or domineering [I would get cross if my little brother wasn’t playing the way I wanted him to, which would lead to him and I bickering and fighting, which was probably minimised to sibling interaction.]
  • Special Interests and Routines
    • The male stereotype of autism has clouded the issue of diagnosis
    • Girls are more passive and collect information on people rather than things
    • The interests of girls in the spectrum are similar to those of other girls
    • Perfectionism is frequently seen in girls [Ding! Ding! Ding!]
    • It is not the special interests that differentiate them from their peers but it is the quality and intensity of these interests [I minimised the intensity of my areas of interests in the appointments because I have enough social wherewithal to know when it is and is not appropriate to talk about them in great detail, but that doesn’t mean that they are not there. Again, something not touched on much in my two appointments.]
  • The Diagnostic Criteria
    • The current systems do not give examples of types of difficulties shown in girls
    • There is a need for a wider perspective regarding social, communication and imaginative dimensions in addition to special interests and rigidity of behaviour
    • There is a need to ask the right questions and make appropriate observations
    • Over- and under-reaction to sensory input is an important feature for all on the autism spectrum and is common in females
  • The Importance of Diagnosis
    • A diagnosis is the starting point in providing appropriate support
    • A timely diagnosis can avoid the difficulties women experience throughout their lives
    • Diagnosis can lead to assessment of needs in employment (amongst other areas)
  • Dale Yaull-Smith, NAS Communication, 2008 – “The fact that girls with undiagnosed autism are painstakingly copying some behaviour is not being picked up on and therefore any social and communication problems they may be having are also overlooked. This effort of mimicking and repressing their autistic behaviour is exhausting, perhaps resulting in the high statistics of women with mental health problems.”

I don’t dispute that there may be an element of Sensory Processing Disorder on my part and look forward to meeting with the Occupational Therapist to discuss this further. I have also purchased Too Loud, Too Bright, Too Fast, Too Tight to investigate things further (like I have done with Aspergirls and the other ASC books I have read) in the meantime whilst I’m awaiting the appointment to be made. However, I still feel that my diagnostic process was too short and inconclusive. I’ve been doing my best to keep myself back from the edge of completely shutting down and being signed off work until this is resolved, mostly because I cannot afford to be off work long-term and I know myself enough that if I were to cave in and stay at home in bed, it will be infinitely harder to pull myself out of that funk and get back into work than just persevering with it, no matter how much it emotionally drains me.

You want to see the real me? Please read between the lines of my questionnaire again. Read between the lines of this letter. Yet again in my life, I feel like I’ve been misunderstood and it hurts me to my core that I have to practically beg for this to be understood. The thought of going into work today and facing people was too much to bear, so I’m working from home. I feel like raw nerve endings – on edge, anxious, unsettled, unsoothed – even a nice shower didn’t alleviate my anxiety this morning. Is this what you needed to see? This is the person that is in the questionnaire; I’m sorry you didn’t get to see her in those two short appointments, but considering that I’ve had 31 years of adapting my behaviour to appear “normal”, I think it takes a bit more than six hours to get to see her, especially since she knows how to behave in a clinical setting.

 

First appointment down…

So, with all the last-minute nature of things, I was quite anxious Friday morning and went in with my stomach in knots.  I was welcomed in by the lady I’d been emailing and speaking to on the phone.  She handed me a clipboard with a brief sensory questionnaire which I completed quite quickly.  Just as I finished, another woman came in (I assume another client) and sat down diagonally opposite me.  The therapist  who ultimately was going to be assessing me came into the room and addressed the other woman first (before me) and they started talking about going running etc. which I just tuned out to, mildly annoyed when she finally looked over to me and said, “Ready whenever you are.”  and I said, “well, if you’re ready to go then…”  I didn’t mean to be deliberately rude, but small talk like that when someone might be quite anxious and irritated by the whole thing isn’t exactly helpful.

We went upstairs and into a small office which was comfortably dim but scantly decorated (no lights on but just indirect daylight through the window).  The therapist was a retired Speech & Language Therapist brought back in to work with this service, which was only established two years ago.  She spoke casually to help bring my anxiety down and started asking her questions to embellish on my responses for my questionnaire.  Can’t remember if I mentioned it in a previous entry (and I’m too lazy to go back looking), but I sent three versions of my questionnaire through… the full version, which primarily was comprised of long passages from my “This Is My Truth” document I started writing last year, embellished with quotes from Aspergirls by Rudy Simone to back up my responses; a significantly redacted version to make it more brief, because I thought whoever got landed with it might not want to read the full long thing; and then a ‘medium-sized’ version, because I thought the redacted one might have taken out too much, so I put some stuff back but kept the Aspergirls quotes out.  She said that she had read the redacted version, so I said at various points that some of my answers were expanded upon in the long version.

It was crazy how fast the time went with answering the questions.  Some were harder to answer than others; remembering stuff about my time in school was particularly difficult, as was talking about my mother, but talking about how people using my desk at work and moving everything around upsets me (more than it reasonably should) led to me becoming quite animated.  I had some advice from the public speaker I had befriended at The Autism Show last year to make specific mention of my “American-ness” possibly masking my traits even more because we’re encouraged to be more “bubbly” and outgoing.

After the open-ended questions (which took up most of the session), I was asked questions from another scaled questionnaire (similar to the AQ Test but quite a bit different) where I had to answer questions as “Always True”, “True as an Adult”, “True as a Child”, and “Never True”.  Some of these questions I was able to answer quite easily (sometimes with a dropped-tone “yes” with a shade of embarrassment and an uncomfortable giggle) and the others I really had to think and make a best-guess answer.  I think she said it was 50 questions long too, but it didn’t seem to take too long because it was quick responses instead of long explanations.  She explained to me at the end of it (as a means to assuage my anxieties about being misdiagnosed with a mental health condition instead of Asperger’s/Autism) that when they have a client who presents with clear mental health needs (above and beyond what occurs in Autism) that for the second appointment they would ask the psychiatrist to attend, but she assured me that she did not think that I have any other co-existing mental health needs, so that was actually a relief.  Next week is the ADOS assessment with the same lady I saw then and a clinical psychologist, and I was advised that I should know my diagnosis relatively quickly, as they recognise how difficult it can be to be left wondering for too long after.  So, I think that means that by the end of this upcoming week, I may have my diagnosis after nearly a year.  I can’t quite process it.

Believe it or not, I walked out of there (after three hours and forty-five minutes!!) feeling surprisingly happy and light, rather than overwhelmed and done-in.  The worst part of the day was trying to get back to my office… let’s just say the motorway was crawling with people travelling back north after their half term breaks on the southern coast… aaaaand it took over an hour and a half to get to my destination.  The only reason I went back to work afterwards was because there was a caseworker evening out planned over a month ago and I didn’t want to not go (yeah, a roundabout way of saying that I wanted to go).  A nice evening was spent with my caseworker colleagues… cold drinks, conversation, a delicious dinner and sweet dessert.

Yesterday was another full-on day… met my tattoo artist first thing in the morning to go over my tattoo design that is going to be inked in three weeks’ time, then went to meet three friends from the admin part of my team for lunch and hung out with my closest friend from that trio for a few hours afterwards.  I came home and sorted out my iPod with the second set playlists from the last two Manics concerts we saw – Cardiff Castle a year ago today and Swansea Liberty Stadium last Saturday.  I was especially excited to find the BBC Radio 2 compilation of 80s songs which included their cover of (Feels Like) Heaven which was included in last Saturday’s second set.

I listened to the Swansea playlist this morning on my way up to my chiropractor appointment, which helped me feel calm despite waking up feeling a bit overwhelmed.  I adore my chiropractor and it’s not so much that I was feeling overwhelmed or anxious about my appointment specifically because I know what to expect, but I think I’ve just had a lot of input this weekend and I feel my energy levels are diminishing.  What didn’t help things on the drive there was that my Google navigation always seems to take me a different way to her new clinic, which means I have to keep using my navigation app because I’ve not yet learnt the way there so that I can drive without using it.  What especially didn’t help were the frickin’ cyclists on the twisty-turny country lanes I was driving to get there and back.  If I had £1 for every cyclist I encountered on the round trip, I’d have enough to have paid for my appointment.  The worst was a man who was running uphill towards oncoming traffic… like, a good three feet over from the edge of the road.  I was getting more and more cross as the journey went on and had to just come home.

I texted Paul to say that I wasn’t going to be going grocery shopping because I’m fed up with going on my own (which he’s tasked me with the last few weeks despite my protests) and am not leaving the house again (today, not “ever”).  I’ve come home and put a load of laundry in the machine and started writing this entry… it’s taken me a good nearly four hours to get it all done, with a few breaks to hang the laundry outside and have lunch.  I came across this article about Executive Dysfunction which beautifully explains what I feel when I become too overwhelmed with things and start “moving like molasses.”

And that leads up to this exact moment in time, wherein I will bid you adieu until after my second appointment.