Unblocking myself

Huge apologies for not updating this site since June. A few people told me they were excited that I was writing here in general or because of particular topics I mentioned I was covering, and I feel like I’ve let them down, so I’m sorry about that. I have in fact written several posts but I seem to have lost the …confidence(?) to properly finish or publish any of them.

I think one of the factors behind this is that I feel that my first ‘explanation’ should start off with something general about the autistic spectrum as an introduction, but autism is such a huge and complex subject and autistic people’s experiences are so diverse, any attempt to represent things concisely fails.

My natural tendency when proof reading and editing is to expand and clarify rather than remove and simplify, which means the result quickly becomes unreadably dense and confusing, or I’ve produced a hugely long post about something that only really makes sense as a side point in an introduction. The nature of the subject and my natural tendency to add caveat after caveat are interacting badly and producing unmanageable and overwhelming drafts.

I’ve been struggling with this problem, giving myself insomnia, talking to friends about it and musing on Twitter. Today I went back and looked over my draft posts and noticed that the common factor was that I start off by saying that I can only talk from my own perspective and experiences. Yes, I’ve researched a lot, have autistic friends, go to autistic conferences, support and social groups, but ultimately I can only explain my perspective and my understanding.

So I’ve just started another draft post (that I’ve edited these first five paragraphs out of) to explain autism in general by giving an overview of how it affects me and how that might differ from other people. I’m going to try to keep that post brief, talk about the breadth rather than the depth (although that still probably means an essay; I tend to verbose even when trying not to). Perhaps this will both give an overview of what the autistic spectrum can encompass while also serving to explain who I am, how I’m autistic and what my perspective is. Perhaps that will manage to satisfy my need for a ‘perfect introduction’ post.

However, that’s not my only problem. I think the fact that I’m so fixated on why I’m not finishing posts is affecting my ability to finish posts, so perhaps letting myself off from the pressure of having to produce a perfectly formed ‘explanation’ before I post anything else, and instead allowing myself to just blog my thoughts about this situation might also help me get on with producing something useful. So I hereby declare this post ‘not perfect’ and give myself permission stop worrying about that respect. This is just a ramble about what’s happening to block me, not a great work of literature.

Another factor that’s scuppering my ability to finish posts is that some of the ones I’ve written need to be illustrated and need about a dozen illustrations, while I’ve been failing to incorporate drawing into my routine for months. I also know my tendency is to take longer and longer on illustrations, tending toward photorealism. The last one I drew easily took me a full week spread out over months of free time, which is clearly not sustainable. I think I need to take the pressure off drawing and ‘finding an illustration style’ and all that and get back to having drawing be something that I do everyday for fun, not a long list of illustrations that I’ve failed to produce. In fact perhaps I should forget about drawing for this site all together and perhaps rewrite a long should-be-illustrated draft I’ve finished into a shorter concise introduction to the other post I started today.

The other problem is that I’m not very good at providing my own structure and deadlines, but I know from bitter experience that I need structure, deadlines and a degree of non-stressful pressure to be able to finish anything reliably (or at least efficiently). I believe that this is an executive function and autistic inertia issue, and it’s one of the things I’ve been given accommodations for at work.

I know that I can write high quality content for this site, but due to my executive function and autistic inertia interacting poorly with my full time job, energy levels and all the other factors above, every attempt to write here spirals into something unmanageable.

Not being able to obsess about structure and revisions also seems to help. One of the best things I’ve written about the autistic spectrum was a Storify made from a sequence of tweets I sent to Twitter during World Autism Awareness Day. I had been thinking about it for months, I knew the shape of what I wanted to say and the subjects I wanted to cover. I tweeted them in a stream, while I was travelling to and from an appointment with an autism specialist to work on my self-awareness (ironically). All I did when I made the Storify was arrange them in order (with very few changes), add an introduction and include clarifications at any point I didn’t think my intentions were clear. I couldn’t rewrite any of the tweets, they were what they were. That actually made things much easier.

I also know that I do a hugely better job with writing if I’m provided with a pitch to respond to, a first draft to improve on or a blog post to reply to, rather than a blank page or a title to start from. This is evidenced by the fact that I only managed to write here when there was a flashblog event to contribute to, and that I was happily producing regular blog-post-length comments on other people’s autistic spectrum blogs for months, yet totally fail to do the same on my own blog. I recently produced 24 well reasoned and well received responses to panel questions on someone else’s blog, but since then I’ve never managed to finish any of my own work.

It seems that my ideal writing project is “take this, see why it doesn’t work, make it better”. This usually involves moving things around, adding a narrative, expanding on some things, achieving others in different ways. But somehow I can’t do that with my own work, the only response my brain produces is “Needs to be longer and more detailed” or “Argh too long and detailed, can’t cope!”. Alternatively “This needs to be split into more posts” after which each of those posts expand to become too long and too detailed. I’m hoping that this tendency is being amplified by the fixation I have on making my first post encompass and represent the entire spectrum, and maybe when I move on to smaller topics this won’t be such an issue.

I seem to do better when I have a length limit (more structure!) or pressure not to write something huge and comprehensive because I’m commenting on someone else’s blog and writing more than them would be rude. Or in fact when someone else has done all the introduction and attempt to be comprehensive and I can just write detail for the part that interest me, which again happens with blog comments. Perhaps I should actually start enforcing a word limit on my posts, and perhaps I should write a blog post introducing why I want to write each ‘explanation’ post so I don’t get sidetracked trying to do that in the post itself (rewriting the introduction multiple times as the post’s content changes) and also have a pre-announced fixed topic with some form of pressure that I’ve already announced it? (Not that I haven’t already announced several of my posts on Twitter then failed to publish them).

I think ideally I’d make this site a collaborative partnership with someone else who was competent and very compatible in their interests, writing style, strengths and weaknesses, but I know that it’s extremely unlikely that I’ll manage to find such a person who would also be willing to commit to spending so much time on this project with me. In fact I’m quite baffled at the idea that anyone manages to set up such collaborations. Presumably a large degree of luck is involved, or both people also happen to be friends with existing work that both admire and similar goals?

One thing I did consider was perhaps organising some sort of group blogging project where weekly topics and deadlines would be set with a description of what sort of thing should be written about and who it would be aimed at, then everyone would post their finished articles in the comments at the end of each week and have them compiled into a group blog. I even suggested this idea at Autscape and had positive interest. Thing is, I think that would really help me if someone else organised it, but if I ran it then I know from experience that I’d end up using up all my energy on administration and commenting on everyone else’s work and never actually manage to write my own content. I’ve done that before with art communities and it was a frustrating dynamic. I think I would need to have worked out how to produce a blog with one quality post a week before I even started considering trying to organise other people to do the same.

If anyone else reading has struggled to get into a routine of blogging or doing any other type of regular writing or creative work, especially if you’ve had trouble with finishing things, I’d be very interested to read your insights of how you eventually got around the problem? Please leave comments if you have any suggestions 🙂

Working through all the above has really helped me to organise my thoughts on this, but I haven’t ended up with a neat conclusion. I think ultimately I need to learn to keep my posts to a sensible length. Learn to edit my own work in the way I might do other people’s, and provide myself with my own deadlines and structure. I know from experience that it’s important to work this into my routine and make a rule that I have to spend at least an hour a day on writing (or every other day, but somehow that’s harder), but that’s difficult when my full time job can sometimes expand to take up all my free time and energy. I also think it’s important to let myself write unstructured rambly blog posts about my thoughts and plans, like this one. This kind of low pressure writing helps me to break cycles of perfectionism. Although believe it or not, I’ve read it through multiple times, expanded on minor things and rewritten a number of sentences to make them clearer. I can’t help but think that I’ve actually made things worse and harder to read though 😐

The most important thing though is that I need to actually start publishing my draft posts and letting my work get out there even when it isn’t perfect. So in the spirit of that, despite not being at all happy with this post (particularly the excessive length), I now declare this post to be finished and I’m releasing it to the world! Who knows, maybe I’ll actually get my autistic spectrum overview post done now I’ve got this ‘out of my system’…

Autistic Pride Day: Why I’m Openly Autistic

autistic pride day - june 18 - there is no cure for being yourselfToday is the 9th annual Autistic Pride Day and the first since I’ve been ‘officially’ on the autistic spectrum. Of course I’ve been acutely aware that I was different from other people since childhood, and known that I was definitely neurodivergent since diagnosed as dyspraxic in early 2007.

Pride is the opposite of shame, and that’s what pride events are about; not being ashamed of who we are. Autism is pervasive, it affects how we perceive, think about and interact with the world, and so it’s an inseparable part of who we are as autistic people. There are a lot of negative things written and said about autism so it’s important for us to push back and say that we like being who we are despite of all the challenges.

I’ve already written here about how there are positives to being autistic but I also want to say a little more about why I chose to be open about my diagnosis rather than keep it as something personal that I only shared with family, close friends, and employers or other professionals on a need to know basis.

Firstly, being open that I’m autistic makes me make sense to other people. It means that friends who’ve struggled to connect with me or assumed that my ‘mixed signals’ meant that I probably disliked them realise that there’s maybe something else going on. It means that people who previously saw me as ‘socially careless’ gain some insight into how hard I’m actually working to be ‘socially correct’ and considerate. It means that people who always saw me as ‘difficult’ might understand how stressful the wrong type of sensory environment can be for me. It means that people who might have been indirect and implicit in their communication might think twice about wording things in a more direct and explicit way. And it means that when I say that I don’t understand something, people are more likely to stop and take the time to reword it, and less likely to assume I’m joking or ridicule me.

Secondly, it means that non-autistic people who know me are aware that they know an autistic person, and that there’s more to the autistic spectrum than the stereotypes and media depictions they’ve probably learned. It means that when I write about how I experience executive function, emotional awareness, sensory overload, social interaction etc, these aren’t just seen as my personal foibles but as there being more to autism than they might have understood.

And perhaps most importantly of all, autism is a spectrum where each of us can have wildly different traits; different strengths, different challenges, different coping mechanisms and different personalities. So being openly autistic means that there’s one more example of autism visible for other ‘undiscovered’ autistic people to recognise themselves in.

I’m out and open for those people who are like I was from ages 12 to 32; aware of being different, aware of so many challenges but not aware of exactly why, not having the words to search for to find all the help and insight that’s other there. People who are working it out the hard way, struggling on their own. Those who might be aware of the stereotypes, but not of the true diversity.

As an extraverted autistic person who makes friends but struggles maintaining friendships, who’s expressive and ‘active but odd’, has poor emotional awareness but strong verbal skills, difficulty dealing with stress and terrible executive function but many coping strategies and successes, I wanted to share my experiences, share what it looks like to be me. To add to the diversity of autistic voices out there, so hopefully even one more person like me can find a word for who they are, and realise that it’s nothing to be ashamed of.

My submission to ‘1000 Ausome Things’

I had hoped to launch this site during Autism Acceptance Month (in April) and to be able to post my submission to this year’s Autism Positivity Flashblog ‘1000 Ausome Things’ as one of my first posts. Unfortunately, I’m not very organised and so I missed my launch target. My Ausome Things submission went out on my personal blog and this site was launched a week later.

However, I’m pleased with how my Positivity post turned out and I always intended to host it here, so here’s a crosspost.

Autism Positivity 2013 Flash Blog
It’s been a year since I was first referred for assessment, and seven months since I was diagnosed with an autistic spectrum condition. This September I gained the knowledge of exactly why I was different, 20 years after becoming painfully and hopelessly aware at age 12 that I wasn’t and couldn’t be like other kids, no matter how hard I tried. After years of searching, I finally knew for certain that the word that described me was ‘autistic’.

I have many challenges. I don’t deal with stress well, I’m not very aware of my body or my emotions, I find it difficult to organise myself without making a lot of conscious effort, I have sensory sensitivities that can easily overwhelm me, I tend to hyperfocus on ‘irrelevant’ details, I struggle to maintain friendships, I’m difficult to live with, the things I love doing are considered odd by most others, and I can be too rigid or literal when I communicate.

A year ago I was having a very difficult time of things, which is why I sought help from my GP, to finally know for sure why I struggled with so many ‘simple’ things. Getting a diagnosis was a huge relief but also triggered some painful reflection on friendships I’d lost, opportunities I missed, decisions I’d made then discounted based on how that change hadn’t solved my personal problems.

But six months on from that difficult first month, I’m able to look back on the positive results of the initially difficult conversations with friends and family, I can see the improvements from disclosing to my employers. I can reflect on the help I’ve been given to identify and act on my emotions. I can look at my home life, my social life and my work life and see just how much happier and more effective I am when I’m able to focus on getting things done and being a good person without worrying about doing things in a way that looks ‘normal’.

Now the challenges have a name and a shape, I can start to work around them, or with them, I can use my ‘inertia’ to ‘slingshot’ between tasks, I can ‘garden the path of least resistance’ and build functional routines that make me happier and more effective. I can use my tendency to develop and follow rules for everything to develop coping strategies that actually help. Now I have the knowledge, I can work out how to write a manual for myself.

Best of all, I’ve found community, I’ve found others who are also different in the ways that I am. People who think like I do, move like I do. I’ve seen my ‘unique’ physical and verbal quirks spontaneously produced by Internet friends I’ve just met in person, felt like I was meeting someone else from the same foreign country I come from. The same kind of different. I’ve found friendship groups who let me be my own stimmy, unfiltered self, and like me for it. I’ve learnt not to bluff and hide when I don’t understand, and I’ve actually started to make more connections.

And I’ve come to appreciate more of the ‘ausome’ things about me…

I notice, think about and take pleasure in small details that other people seem to miss or overlook.

Although I find complex emotional awareness difficult, I’m very aware of simple emotions like happiness, meaning that I jump around in glee at least once almost every day.

Unlike most people I meet, I no longer have the deluded belief that everyone thinks in the way I do, likes the things I do or sees the world how I do. I knew early on that there wasn’t anything that ‘everyone likes’ or ‘no one likes’.

I’m able to talk about what I do badly with total honesty without this meaning that I have low self esteem (the emotions specialist who worked with me seemed to think this was a rare skill).

Because I’ve always been aware that unwritten social rules are a challenge, I tend to try to be as intentionally thoughtful and considerate of other people’s feelings as much as possible.

By now, I am adept at explaining my own access needs and the reasons why they’re important, I have scripts for most situations and I can be the calm and ‘level headed’ one in situations that others find upsetting.

Despite having extremely fragile working memory, my long time memory for certain things is incredible.

I can hold the details of a complicated system in my head and see how one change will affect everything.

I tend to spot flaws and focus on the details, so I’m good at proof reading and analytical thinking. This makes me extremely well suited to many aspects of my job.

Because I have to organise myself ‘by force’, I already had the organisational strategies and tools to organise complicated work projects without training.

Having an incredible eye for detail and colour, and the hyperfocus to work on the same thing for hours and hours on end means that I was able to train myself to produce digital paintings that give people pleasure:

Digital painting of a kingfisher

I can spend 15 hours on a single hyper-detailed image: (Click images for larger versions)

Digital painting of a barn owl

Being autistic is who I am, who I’ve always been. Getting to 32 with unidentified autism isn’t easy, there have been a lot of challenges and I have many regrets, but truly understanding and accepting my place on the autistic spectrum has been one of the best things to happen to me. Having this knowledge doesn’t change who I am, but it does help me to like who I am, and get so much more out of my life.

This post was part of the Autism Positivity Day 2013 Flashblog, finishing off Autism Acceptance Month 2013.

To learn more about the autistic spectrum, read the Storify I created for World Autism Awareness Day 2013.

Introducing Graphic Explanations

Welcome to Graphic Explanations! I’m Nat, a 30-something IT professional and amateur illustrator from the United Kingdom, recently diagnosed with an autistic spectrum condition.

Growing up autistic is challenging, and not having the words to describe and explain what makes you different is a challenge of its own. As an adult, I developed strategies to use my strengths and talents to hide my difficulties, but these were fragile, flawed and stopped me from making true connections with others.

Recently things have been changing, gradually I’m finding ways to be happier and more effective. What drove this change was knowledge and understanding. For the first time in my life I found a conclusive reason for why I’ve always been different.

From the word ‘autism’ I’ve found more words, ideas and personal stories that explain why I see the world the way I do. I’ve found others who have the same problems I struggle with, who were sharing insights and solutions that applied to my life.

Understanding was the key to accepting who I am, to help me stop struggling to do things in ways that looked ‘normal’ and actually get them done in ways that worked for me. It has allowed me to be honest with other people, to stop bluffing my way through social situations, and to ask for help and understanding from others when I need it. It’s helping me to get the most out of life; not by ignoring, suppressing or hiding my autistic traits, but by maximising them. I’m learning to be happily and openly autistic.

Why ‘Graphic Explanations’?

When I deal with something difficult or upsetting, I cope by researching. I learn as much as I can about the subject so I can understand what caused the difficulties and how to avoid them happening again. I’ve been searching for answers and learning as much as I could about how I was different for as long as I can remember. Now, for more than a year, I’ve had the greatest research lead possible.

I’ve started this site to collect and explain everything I’ve learned about the autistic spectrum since coming to understand my place on it. I’d like this to be the clear, comprehensive resource that I wish I’d had available to me when I first started trying to research my traits.

Because I don’t like to make things easy for myself, my true aspiration is to make my resource as a nonfiction graphic novel. However I know that I don’t have the time or experience to achieve that yet, and to aim that high would be too much of a barrier to even beginning. So instead I’m launching an ‘occasionally illustrated’ blog that may hopefully become increasingly visual as time goes on.

The name is a play on the fact that ‘novel’ means a long fictional work, so ‘nonfiction graphic novel’ is a contradiction in terms, despite being correct. ‘Graphic explanation’ was my wryly suggested alternative. It also has the benefit of the double meaning suggesting a very detailed, explicit explanation, should I only ever manage to achieve prose output without illustrations.

To begin with, I’ll be reposting articles I’ve written elsewhere, including rewriting blog-post-length comments I’ve left on posts by other autistic bloggers. Once that’s done, I have a list of subjects I’m planning to tackle, some of which I’ve already planned how to illustrate. It’s going to be interesting to see how this site develops, right now the possibilities are inspiring.