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. 😉