Sunday, 4 June 2017

On Life With Autism: Making "Scents" Of The World

Imagine you're born on a planet, filled with other humans. Only these humans communicate chiefly through releasing certain scents. You don't know this. You are you as you are, with your ways of thinking and communicating and being. You grow up on this planet being yourself, talking to the other humans just fine, being perfectly polite, but everyone is angry at you all the time. 

"How are you?"
"How dare you! You're so rude and arrogant!"

You grow up like this and you have no idea what you're doing wrong. You ask people why they're angry and they just get angrier.

"If I have to tell you what you've done wrong then you obviously don't care! You should know!"

You get fed up of always being in the wrong, being a loner, never fitting in. You start paying extra attention and one day you come to the realisation that certain responses or certain topics come with a certain scent. You begin to suspect there's a whole method of communication you're missing out on, and maybe it's even more important than the actual words you use.

You start consciously noting what smells come with which feelings. You notice that when someone is sad there's a smell of lilies. When they're angry there's a smell of cinnamon.

You realise with horror that you've been going around emitting the scent which indicates contempt or arrogance.

You realise that there's this whole other method of communication which all the other humans do "instinctively" which means they do it without thinking, and they expect you to do the same. They can't tell you what scent means what because they don't consciously pay attention to it. Worse, they won't believe that you don't know because to them it's as natural as breathing.

You start experimenting. You realise you are capable of emitting chosen scents as well. So you observe, you try to figure out which scent means what and then put it into practice, emitting what you hope are the right scents at the right time. Sometimes you get it right, more often you get it wrong.

As time goes by you realise it's more complex then you thought. A scent that's mostly cinnamon with a hint of lilies means someone is newly bereaved. Good lord, this is so much harder than you realised. You've gotten the basic emotions down but that only makes it worse. People see you understand the basics so they're even less likely to believe you don't understand all the far more complex mixes of scents that indicate anything from arousal, to pride mixed with humility, to conflicted joy and all the other complex range of emotions these people can have.

Eventually you get to a point after years of trial and mistrial, heartache and unnecessary upset, where you can pass for normal, where most people won't realise you're "different".

The problem now is that these interactions are exhausting. You have to consciously note all the different smells and match them up with the right feelings and implications, while also consciously trying to emit the correct ones yourself. All the while the other humans do this without thinking, it takes nothing out of them.

You spend your days constantly bombarded by scents you have to make sense of. You meet up with a larger group and it's even more exhausting trying to keep track of everyone's scents. The more people, the harder the job and the more exhausted you are afterwards. The more time you need on your own afterwards recovering your energy.

Imagine also that every sound on this planet is three times louder than every sound on earth. You go for a night out and it's utterly overwhelming. You're supposed to keep track of every scent and emit the right ones while the boom of the music is like holding speakers to your head with the volume as high as it will go. You have to look happy too or people will constantly ask you what's wrong, or get angry with you because you don't look like you're enjoying yourself. You have to correctly analyse everything when you're just so overwhelmed it's barely possible to even think.

Sometimes you manage it and make a good showing of yourself. Sometimes you don't and it just makes the other humans dislike you because you're not talking enough, you're no fun, a bit weird, a bit quiet. And every time you get invited out somewhere loud and busy it's a fight between wanting to be social and have friends, and trying not to be overwhelmed and make people dislike you more because you're not present enough, not interesting enough, not emitting the right scents or correctly interpreting other's scents.

This is what it's like to be autistic, only it's so much more complex than that. If scents in this example equate to tone, you also have body language, pacing of speech, context, and a myriad of other "unconscious" and "instinctive" means of communication which you first have to realise exist at all, and then figure out what they mean, and then put them into practice, all the while no one will tell you what these things are, no one CAN tell you how they work as to most people it's instinctive, and no one will believe you don't instinctively know these things either, so if you get it wrong people will refuse to believe you didn't mean to be rude, or cruel or arrogant or uncaring.

Then you have the fact that autistic people think differently to neurotypicals (that's you!) so it's not even like our minds are the same and we just need to translate it correctly with the "unconscious" toolsets we have to try so hard to use with conscious effort. We have to translate how we think too, and translate other people's thought processes into something we can understand.

It's exhausting. And it's why, despite the fact I can appear more or less normal and I can get on pretty well these days, I will always struggle, I will often burnout, I will have breakdowns and shutdowns, and I need a lot more time on my own recovering than most "normal" people. It's why I struggle in loud and busy environments, why I go quiet sometimes, and why I sometimes just need to leave an environment despite the fact that everyone else is having such a good time and I'm being "selfish" wanting to leave.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Imposter Syndrome

I haven't written anything in ages, because for a long time I've felt...together. Like my life has not been dramatic enough to be worth writing about. Not interesting enough to read about.

But...impostor syndrome. By god this is something I've felt all my life, the more I achieve, the more I move on, the more this becomes prevalent.

I always assumed I would be a jobless, homeless bum, dying in a ditch somewhere while people with real lives passed me by, disgusted by the tramp lying in the gutter, clearly too "lazy" to pull everything together and live a normal life like a normal human being.

Every achievement pushes on me further the feeling that I shouldn't be where I am. That at some point, everyone will realise that I'm a fake of a human being, that I've lucked my way into my position, with a decent job, good pay, a place of my own, a girlfriend who loves me. As though all of this will come crashing down around me when the world catches up with me and says "oy, who is this guy, why have we let him be where is he is?"

I'm facing a promotion (maybe), and a definite bonus and pay rise in June regardless because somehow, I have exceeded the expectations put upon me. This boggles my mind, well and truly. How am I a capable human being? Is everyone simply faking it, does anyone really feel the confidence they appear to  project?

When will it all come crashing down? When will I be pushed back into the gutter that despite all my achievements, all my hard work, I feel I truly deserve?

How long can I keep this up?

Thursday, 13 August 2015

How I Taught Myself To Approximate A Normal Human Being

When I was a kid, I didn't get things like other people did. I liked maths, because maths had rules and logic. Take this input, perform these actions on it, get this result out. Every time. Maths made sense. Maths was reliable.

I never did anything without a purpose. I couldn't understand why people spoke to each other. Almost everything they said seemed meaningless, they weren't imparting required information to each other, just making noise.

When I entered 6th form, I was fed up of not fitting in, of not having friends or being invited to parties, so I decided to figure out how to be a normal human being. I started being that creepy guy no one really knows just hanging around at the edge of a group, staring but not talking. I was observing, figuring out the rules and logic governing human interaction. I spent months trying to figure out the purpose of small talk, trying to figure out the rules so I could replicate them, but I couldn't find any logic or reason to the conversation I was hearing. It all just seemed like meaningless noise, devoid of useful information, with no set pattern, no subtext that I could determine, no purpose that I could see.

After about half a year of observing people, it hit me one day. I had my first big breakthrough. I'd been looking at it all wrong, trying to determine the purpose of small talk through the meaning of the words. I realised then that there was no purpose to the words, it was the act of talking which itself had meaning. Small talk is just a little "Hello! I'm here! Don't forget me!".

Armed with this theory I took it to practice. I'd been standing quite literally on the outside of groups, backs turned, but I started making noise. I repeated what someone else had said, in a slightly different way. I said meaningless things just to keep myself noticed, and it worked. Those turned backs were turned my way more often, and the more noise I made the more they turned. Eventually, I was allowed into the group to join the circle, and we all made noise together. A brief little "Hello, include me, I am relevant" together.

And that's how I learned to approximate a normal human being.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

On maturity and growing up

Strange post for me to be writing, this one. I've fought against "growing up" for years but alas it seems to be overtaking me. It's with a bemused and slightly wistful tone that I write these words.

Maturity. What is that? Many, many, far too many people seem to think maturity means being "grown up", grown up apparently meaning to be serious. When we say someone is "immature" we usually mean they're a bit weird and they act a bit childish. I would argue that maturity doesn't require a person to become boring, plain and serious. To me, maturity, in the ways that count, means dealing with ones responsibilities. Finances, relationships and work being the main ones.

Everything else is academic. One can grow old without "growing up", and still be mature. I think it's a sad state to assume that growing older means we must abandon the things which make us happy. Spontaneity, a sense of wonder and adventure. Doing something we feel like, because we want to and it makes us happy, like rolling down hills or climbing trees without worrying what some strangers we'll never see again will think about us. I see friends lamenting lost childhoods on Facebook, all the things they used to do because they simply wanted to and it was fun, and don't feel they can now because they are "grown up".

Why block out that inner child? To what end?

As I said before, maturity, true maturity that counts, means looking after your responsibilities. Being an adult to me, mainly seems to consist of doing things I don't want to. But I AM an adult, I AM mature, I do those things. I get up at 5 in the morning to go to work. Or I head in at 7 in the evening and leave at 7 in the morning after a night shift.

I have matured a lot since I left University. I could never have imagined working 12 hour shifts when I started, or reaching a point where I can support myself. When I began, I was a wide eyed innocent little teen, with no idea what I wanted (ESPECIALLY when it came to relationships and girls). I had no sense of responsibility...9am lecture? No thanks, I'll stay in bed! And it's that which I have fought since leaving University...the real world is too harsh, it hasn't got time for you to lie around in bed during the day and stay up late drinking every night. Do that and you'll end up jobless and broke. The real world is difficult and cruel, but it's something which must be not only faced, but embraced, if one is to get anything out of it.

And it's in this terrifying "real world" place where keeping in touch with your inner child is so very important. It would be awful to lose touch with the innocence and joy of simply doing things which make you happy, for the simple reason that they make you happy. Being "immature" is the only way I can deal with being "mature". I'm proud to say I'm immature.

And I've grown up too.

Monday, 6 May 2013

The dreaded question - "Where are you from?"

A very difficult question for me, which I am often asked when I meet new people, is "where are you from?"

Those of you who know a little about me will know why this question causes me trouble. If I answer "the world" people think I'm trying to be clever.

See, I was born in Berlin in 1989. When I say this people go "Oh wait, you're German?" NO! I was born in a British Military Hospital to British parents. This makes me British. My Dad was in the army, so we moved every two or three years, and so I have never really had a "base" other than the quite literal base I would be inhabiting at the time.

People often try to place my accent, which is an unenviable task given the nature of my upbringing. It's very strange when people to try to place me as "Northern" or "Southern" given that those words don't really hold any meaning to me. In fact, believe it or not, up until about 2 years ago I didn't really understand that there was any difference between "Northerners" and "Southerners", I wasn't aware that there was any animosity between the two. Having lived OUT THERE in the wide world, it seems ridiculous that one country should be divided in itself. Even more ridiculous is that I find that there are more divisions, between people who live ridiculously close together.

Take Warrington and Wigan for example. They are less than 15 miles apart. 15 miles people. And yet there is this huge rivalry. As an adopted "Warringtonion" I am supposed to hate the "pie eating Wigans" with fierce and amusing intensity. What baffles me is that we eat pies here too. We're practically the same. If anything, people from Wigan seem friendlier.

As a forces kid, I have no idea what to say to people when they ask me where I'm from. Is it the place I'm currently living? The place I've lived the longest? It feels very weird and quite disconnected to not really have a "from" for me. Some people suggest I'm from the places where my family live, but I only ever went to Leeds at Christmas to see family, and although my mother, and thus I, currently live in Warrington, I definitely have no connection to this place.

Where are you from?

I have no idea.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Smiles are my weakness.

I wrote this while I was bored in my old job and I just found it again recently. Yes it's soppy. Deal with it ;-)

She had an amazing smile. A beautiful grin which bloomed across her face and lit up her eyes. When she smiled I was entranced. There was pure, unashamed happiness and honesty in the upward curve of those lips, the shine that entered her eyes and lit them from within. When she smiled, for a moment all was right with the world. Every part of her came alive, she seemed radiant, larger than life. When she smiled, I wanted to take her up in my arms, squeeze her tight, kiss her forehead, and then her lips, and then clasp her head tight to my chest, my hands running through her smooth hair. When she smiled...I felt happy.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Snelling Cornbottom

The inspiration for this little story came from an amusing interaction with someone with an amusing name. I had a mischievous idea and from that came this delightful little short story, written as an intro to a more complete work.

And so without further ado,  I present to you, "Snelling Cornbottom".

Snelling Cornbottom hated his name. His parents had been whimsical creatures who had a teapot named Eric, an iron named Peter and a child they decided, against all reason, to call Snelling. The unfortunate last name of Cornbottom was something his Father was afflicted with through the pure bad luck of being born to a proud line of Cornbottoms. Perhaps this was why his Father felt the need to pass on the injury and call his only child Snelling.

Snelling lived in a tiny flat above a bakery, the scent of warm baking bread wafting up at all hours to fill his single room, permeating the air with a friendly atmosphere and making his stomach grumble constantly. Snelling was good at grumbling, in fact it was his favourite past-time next to picking the fluff out of his belly button and adding it to his collection, stacked in neat rows of jars along the windowsill. His friends were disgusted by this habit, at least, he assumed they would be, but his friends couldn't speak, being in fact a spider that lived on the lampshade and a moth which had one night flown in through an open window and couldn't seem to find it's way back out again. He hadn't named the spider and the moth and so they were simply known as Spider, and Moth, respectively. But they were his closest friends.

Snelling himself was an old man of about 70, with a curved nose and a wart upon his right cheek, hair sticking up out of it like little spiders legs. Maybe this was why Spider hung around, perhaps he thought he had found a mate. Snelling didn't like to imagine what Spider got up to at night when he was asleep, but he sometimes woke with an unpleasant tickling sensation upon that cheek, and he would swear he often heard the odd tiny joyful squeal as a small dark shape swung off into the darkness.

Moth never seemed to care much for Snelling, in fact he seemed unreasonably enamoured with the light bulb which he danced around while Spider sat closely by, watching and hoping, but Moth had an uncanny knack of avoiding the carefully laid web.

It was a precarious friendship, founded on necessity, bad luck and not having anywhere better to be. This was Snelling's home. This is where our story begins.