I was prompted to write my first blog when I saw the frantic rush by shoppers to buy toilet roll. It triggered my own anxiety about what would happen if panic buying resulted in me not being able to buy the very specific brands of food that I must have.
The world did not run out of toilet roll, pasta, crunchy nut cornflakes or any other items and my anxieties about shortages were unfounded.
However – my distinct lack of anxiety about the potential impact of coronavirus on my health – I believed I would be at low risk due to being healthy and unsociable – was proven completely wrong.
I did become ill in the weeks following writing my original blog and needed to visit the hospital due to my continuous cough and breathing difficulties. This hospital visit was unlike any hospital visit I had made before. Some positives came from it and I was able to share my personal experience of sensory distress and confusion with the health board who were developing some fantastic resources for people who have a learning disability or are autistic. I’m glad I could use that traumatic experience to help others.
I worked as a key worker until late August and also in my role within Autism Wellbeing. We began producing information for people affected by autism. Tips for autistic people; their families; carers; and colleagues; covering everything from the language used in the pandemic; masks and PPE; coping with change; self-care; returning to work and school; and coping with the “New Normal”.
Our popular Covid-19 Resource pack has been widely shared and downloaded. You can get a free copy by following this link:
In fact, we were nominated for and awarded as “Local Lockdown Legends” for the work we are doing online and in our Facebook peer support groups for autistic adults and for parents/carers. (And by the way; many group members are in both groups).
At home we focused on our son. He was already home educated and I watched how parents of school educated kids tried to juggle working from home with providing a full time education. An impossible task. Collectively across society, we all did our best and realised there were many benefits to the computer screens and games consoles we often feel as parents are ‘taking over’ our children’s lives. The ability to chat online and out loud to friends, to play games together and stay in touch from the privacy of our own homes is invaluable and has been a life saver for many people. Here is a personal post I shared on Facebook as the first UK lockdown was announced. And a follow up 2 months later:
We are still learning about what is important to us. We have found that routines work well – and letting each family member set the routines that are most important to them is even better. I tend to bake a cake each weekend, we have pizza and a film on a Saturday – we have found that making the weekends special is important for us so we don’t feel lost in a world where every day feels like Sunday.
My initial fear – in fact it was more like a recurring bad dream, was of the pandemic ending abruptly and the streets being filled with people making lots of noise and desperate to hug me – imagining this filled me with terror. Of course, this is not how it has panned out.
I am so lucky, I live in a beautiful place. The natural world has been my escape, my place of solace, my predictably changing best friend throughout the pandemic. I have watched the bare branches of the beech and oak trees in my local woods fill with leaves until the woods became darker under the shady green canopy. And now, they are almost bare again under the steel-grey autumn sky. I have seen wood anemones make way for bluebell and the foxgloves. The Red kite I began observing on March 13th probably nested and raised chicks – but I’ll never know – my blog diary was never finished due to travel restrictions. I satisfied myself with writing about the history of Red kites in Wales instead. Here’s a link to my wildlife blog below. I also continued to write a nature column for my local newspaper as well as running my wildlife Facebook group.
Our family also faced challenges. Being unable to visit a parent who was rushed into hospital on two occasions during lockdown – not even being able to find out what was happening due to confidentiality rules, was upsetting and frustrating and left us feeling helpless. Not being able to meet as a family to lay another family member’s ashes to rest and pay our last respects was tough too. The uncertainties of the pandemic were topped off with the uncertainties of family life.
And on top of this my husband and I have post viral fatigue. Long Covid is what people are commonly calling it. I have had swollen joints, shingles, urine infections, breathing difficulties, and tiredness like you cannot believe. I have barely enough energy to keep myself feeling regulated and my sensory processing has swung from hearing every noise, finding daylight painful, becoming nauseated by any smell – to – not feeling a thing, not knowing where my bruises have come from or finding my hair is matted from where I have rocked unknowingly and continuously all night long in my sleep.
I have felt confused, scared and bewildered. I initially felt annoyed that people were clapping for the NHS – mainly because I like peace and quiet and the sound of my neighbours beating the hell out of saucepans every Thursday evening left my body activated and ready for flight, fright or freeze from the moment I got out of bed on a Thursday morning. I now wish that society was still coming together in this way – the sense of us all being “in it together” has diminished. People are calling other people out for perceived breaches of lockdown and are jumping on bandwagons they had no interest in before. I watched friends throw every ounce of their energy into campaigning about “Black Lives Matter” – my sentiments are with them all the way but it felt like this and other topics were being used as a distraction from the boredom, worry and upheaval of the pandemic; and I watched with shock, bewilderment and disappointment as I saw other friends demonstrate the most ill thought out and racist behaviour ever. I witnessed parts of society get fed up with staying in when the sun came out, so off they headed for the beaches and countryside. It felt like all the world was out of control all around me. It looked to me as if everyone was on the verge of total emotional overwhelm – people I view as level headed were sharing memes and fake news without checking for facts first – pressing “Like” or “Share” because it gave them a shot of something that momentarily eased whatever negative feelings the pandemic created in their bodies.
And I kept baking my cakes on a weekend, kept working, kept walking every day I could. Kept up my self-care and kept going and going and going. My ability to keep doing the same thing again and again in the same way has kept me focused and strong.
And some days I felt peace and at one with the world – I loved the simplicity, the lack of socialising, the space – and the quiet. And on other days I felt stifled, trapped and unable to find any peace – either internally or outside my body. Our one living room felt way too small for a family and I would have given anything for the endless questions about when can my son see his friends again – or the rants about what the government were or weren’t doing – or the continual noise and movement that inevitably comes with living as part of any family – to just stop!
I wondered whether autistic people would fare better than others because we are so skilled at having to cope with uncertainties. We rely on routines, structures, and rules, and are famous for preferring our own company. I wrote about how there was no better time to be an autistic person. In fact, I have a secret to share… Although my autism was never hidden, I had never articulated to the wider world what it was like for me. So I decided to write a blog because I knew I was very unwell – I wondered if I would die from coronavirus and I rushed this out so at least people would know what life was like for me if I did die. I also wrote an article for the local paper about finding peace in nature and calling for humankind to be compassionate towards each other.
Did I do better than anyone else because I’m autistic? Well, firstly it’s not a competition. We all need to play to our strengths in order to thrive in life. My strengths are by their nature autistic. Unfortunately, the medical model of autism describes them in terms of deficits and what is “wrong” with me. My need for consistency and routine, and my unique way of experiencing the world through my different sensory processing system are viewed as symptoms of a disorder. Does being autistic make the pandemic easier to cope with for me? Yes. Would it make it easier to cope with for you? Probably not. We each need to utilise the coping strategies that work best for us. But of course, there is scope to learn from each other, regardless of our neurologies…
Many of us have found we have needed to work from home during the pandemic – and many employers have embraced this and seen the benefits. Some disabled people have been requesting to work from home for years, whether due to accessibility issues that affect mobility; or accessibility issues around transport, communication and the sensory aspects of workplaces. Lets hope that those people who work better this way can continue working from home. I have been home based for many years and was able to give tips to other working people about planning your day; taking breaks; effective communication; and work/home balance.
No discussion about the workplace would be complete without mentioning video calls. I went from being someone who could not even look at a photograph of herself; to being an active participant (if a bit overwhelmed and reluctant at times!) of conference calls; to being featured in films and training videos. It was a Herculean achievement, reached by taking many painful, brave and challenging small steps. The world of conference calls highlighted many of the challenges autistic people face with communication. Not just the act of being on screen and talking to people – that can feel bad enough! But the technological issues that occur during a video call – these feel familiar to me in my face-to-face interactions:
- The lag between speech and mouth movements that makes verbal and non-verbal communication slightly out of synch – that’s how my brain processes communication ordinarily. I put a huge amount of effort into matching up facial expressions, body language and speech so that it makes sense to me.
- The background noises are amplified on a video call – the scrape of chairs, tapping of keyboard keys, coughs, hiccups and slurping tea – these all sound at the same volume and intensity. Welcome to my usual world of sensory processing where nothing gets filtered!
- The lack of spatial clues means you can’t tell where those “mmmm’s”, “uh-huh’s” and other meta-communication is coming from. You may miss the shaking head of disagreement from the person off-camera because your focus is on the person who is speaking. There is soooo much to take in. No wonder we get zoom fatigue!
Did I take up any new hobbies? No
Did I get fit? No….Sorry Joe Wicks…
Did I learn anything about myself, my family and the wider world? Yes, loads.
Do I feel hopeful?
I have fluctuated between feeling hopeful and feeling despair. I viewed the initial “togertherness” positively: the sense of communities supporting each other, clapping together, helping each other out. I remember a video doing the rounds on social media back in the early summer that spread a message of hope and how we’d learn and become a better society because of the pandemic. I cynically thought to myself, that we probably wouldn’t.
I watched the way the media used language, imagery, metaphors and colours to emphasise whatever mood they wanted to portray. I made accurate predictions of the government’s next moves – I’m no conspiracy theorist, or political expert – just an accomplished spotter of patterns!
I have seen people ride by on a rollercoaster of emotions, I have occasionally hopped on and off myself! A “coronacoaster” as one meme describes it.
Coming out of a 17 day Welsh lockdown today, having been on tenterhooks over the US election, fatigued by post viral illness and worried about my family and what the future holds; I could easily feel hopeless – I do feel hopeless. And that’s OK. This pandemic really sucks sometimes!
But when I reflect and look back at the positives that have only happened because I have been alive on this planet in this exact period of time, then yes, I do have hope…
- I have gained friends
- I made a flute out of a carrot
- I have started a PhD
- I have swung on rope swings, gone wild swimming in rivers and ridden my motorbike
- I am working with colleagues who value me
- I have overcome challenges I thought I’d never face
- Covid didn’t kill me
- I have written…and written… Autism blogs, wildlife blogs, nature columns, information sheets, contributions to a paper on Sensory Trauma, contributions to ‘Neuroclastic’, Facebook groups and pages, and scene 1 of a play- my first ever work of fiction.
- And on one occasion I chased a pig and got over 30,000 social media views for my efforts!
You can watch me in my first ever vlog by viewing the YouTube link below, or if you’d prefer a traditional written blog, you can read that instead.
I have decided to go to University. Now then, if Miss Hooper, my very first teacher in primary school heard that news, she might be quite shocked that I am saying this at the ripe old age of 47.
On more than one occasion over the past few decades, I have affectionately cursed Miss Hooper for setting such high expectations for me. Within days of me starting school she informed my parents that I was potential Oxbridge material. A child with my natural academic ability was clearly cut out for one of the top Universities in the land.
It didn’t happen. I didn’t even get close…
So what went wrong?
For a long time I assumed “I” went wrong; my teachers assumed I went wrong; my parents assumed I went wrong. But I didn’t go wrong. The education system simply did not respond to my needs. And this was because of my undiagnosed autism.
Mind you, I can’t think of a single child at school who was diagnosed with autism. This was the 1970’s and no one had yet described the spectrum of autism nor the triad of impairments. And we were still years away from Asperger syndrome being used as a diagnosis.
Right, let’s get back to my school days.
So it’s the New Year of 1978 -I had been to playschool for a year or so and was quite looking forward to joining the big school.
I was already able to read and write – and I already had a bit of a reputation, as I was not backward in informing my playschool leaders when they misspelt my surname. And I was most offended – and I told them – when their response was that a 3 year old shouldn’t be able to spell their surname anyway! You can probably guess how well I was going to fit in with the education system from this moment on.
So here I was about to go to school. I was looking forward to it. I wanted to do some proper work! Miss Hooper, my class teacher, seemed very old to me – I suppose she was almost at retirement age back then – in fact she died earlier this year at the grand old age of 100.
She could be described as an old-fashioned sort of teacher. Strict; slightly distant; very academic and serious. Not at all like the playschool leaders who would happily get involved hands on with the children and cuddle them and play with them and fuss over them.
It was bloody brilliant!
Miss Hooper gave me extra reading lessons and I was allowed to choose books from the junior children’s library, even though I had only just started in the infants. I was even allowed to stay in at lunchtime and do more reading instead of joining the other children outside to play. I very much fitted in with this school system and I was happy to be spending my time there, stretching my brain.
I’d like to point out at this point that autism is a spectrum. That doesn’t mean some people are mildly autistic and some are severely autistic. And it doesn’t have anything to do with academic ability either. Autism is a spectrum because whilst all autistic people share similar ways of processing the world; this manifests in different ways. I was academically bright – yet took a very long time to learn how to tie my shoelaces. I could talk with ease about one of my interests – maths or animals for instance. But I struggled to know what to say to make friends.
For me, it is these contradictions that are the very essence of my autism. The huge expectation from others – and myself – that because I can do this thing very well, I should be able to most other things very well too. I remember a phrase used repeatedly about me as a child. “How can someone who is so clever, be so stupid?” This very negative phrase has taken a lot of shifting from my internal dialogue, probably because I felt it summed me up so perfectly.
I got hold of some old pictures I drew in my first school year and some of my classwork too. I can remember the sheer joy of finishing my work and asking for some extra sums to keep me busy while I waited for the rest of the class to catch up. I remember exactly how I used to think aged 4 when I drew these pictures – I was exactly the same then as I am now. So it’s nice to look back and remember that I was actually quite a sweet, fairly ordinary little girl too.
Have a look at my vlog (about 4 and a half minutes in) if you’d like to see more of them.
I am begining to see how I was starting to look to the other children. I mean – a 4 year old who asked for extra maths – for fun! Yep, my differences were beginning to show…
But no one suspected that this socially awkward, pedantic child with a massive obsession about numbers and animals was autistic. I was lucky in a way because my academic brightness and extremely polite “good” behaviour, masked some of my difficulties. My quirks – as they were probably perceived – were tolerated because I was bright and well behaved.
I was told I was clever – I knew I was clever. I was probably a total pain in the backside because my need for accuracy, order and consistency, combined with my academic ability meant that I would correct people whenever I felt it was needed and not really take into consideration anyone else’s feelings or opinions. However, I was – and still am, a polite person, and very considerate. I would happily correct someone because – goodness me, that’s what ‘I’ would want them to do for me. Surely, they must want me to tell them what they got wrong? And I’d tell them with no malice; no unkindness – just total honesty, straight to the point logic and reason – you know what? – they’d probably find me super helpful. Wouldn’t they?
Of course – this different way of experiencing empathy and interacting with others was not the typical way of my peers.
Let’s skip on a few years to secondary school.
Secondary school was bigger. More people, separate lessons, different classrooms, and a timetable to negotiate.
Things started relatively ok.
But over the course of my 5 years at secondary school, things deteriorated. I’ll share some genuine extracts from my school reports…
Year 1: This is from the Head of Year: “Emma has shown herself to be a pupil of the highest quality… She is enthusiastic and often terribly energetic and excitable about what she is doing… She is clear thinking and responsible and I am sure has much to offer the school in the future… The staff reports speak for themselves. An excellent report”
Yep, there I was. A bright future ahead of me. Lets see what the individual teachers had to say..
Maths – there should be no problem there… Grade A for effort and A for achievement – great, now what did my teacher say? OK, here goes: ”Emma works extremely well in class. She is a little dogmatic in her approach to mathematics, but at least discusses with me any disagreements she has over method!”
Yeah, well. I suppose that sounds a bit like me!
The rest of that first year report was also good. A’s for everything apart from P.E.
That wasn’t a surpirse, I have the coordination of a blancmange! I can remember from primary school how my parents were told that there hadn’t been a single P.E lesson where I didn’t injure myself in some way.
Anyway, lets look at my second year at secondary school…A good performance in all subjects according to my Head of Year. Perhaps a little too talkative.
Yep – drama teacher here says “very talkative but pleasant with it”.
Mmmm. Spanish: “Emma is a lively character, perhaps a little too lively at times for her own good”
French… “Emma’s concentration in class is apt to lapse rather too much”
Science… “Emma does not seem to work to her full ability. She can occasionally behave stupidly”
Actually Mr Hughes, I don’t think you are meant to use the word “stupid” when referring to your pupils.
History next…”Disappointing…lacks depth, Emma must be wary of developing a superficial approach”
Right, so not quite the “pupil of the highest quality” from Year 1. And whilst I was still mostly getting A’s for achievement – my grades for effort were now tending to be B’s.
But, Oh how I wish they knew the sheer amount of effort I had to put in just sitting on that crowded, noisy bus whilst teenagers screeched and sprayed copious amounts of Impulse body spray around; so that I could spend a day in brightly lit classrooms, full of people who were just not like me.
By the third year I needed to be choosing my options for GCSE’s – the new exam that was replacing O levels. I was not happy about GCSE’s. There was coursework required and homework to complete – I liked tests and exams – coursework meant sustained efforts and the ability to demonstrate you really understood something and could apply it across a range of contexts. And I preferred relying on my good memory, and winging it in the exam!
“Emma must learn to pay attention” – that was from my English teacher – and this is one of my favourite quotes ever – “Her ability cannot be questioned; her attitude can!”
And there you have it – my shift from being a bright, lively engaged member of the class, to a child who is perceived as having an attitude problem.
“There is room for improvement” according to the French teacher – I still got an A though, so where I needed to improve, I’m not sure.
Around that time I also remember frequently being told that I wasn’t listening. And I would of course reply that I was and repeat what had been said word for word.
And then… wait for it, I’d be told “Well look like you’re listening then”
So I developed my “listening pose” based on Rodin’s The thinker ….. It also felt nice to do and is still a favourite soothing strategy when I need to calm myself in front of other people without drawing too much attention to it.
“Easily distracted” in Spanish
“Needs to do a great deal to redeem herself” … that’s physics
Here’s a nice one… History “Emma is a highly intelligent and articulate girl with a waspish sense of humour”
Thank you for that, I only didn’t take history as a GCSE option because I didn’t like the other history teacher – he was sexist – and I told him. He said that the girls should help their mum’s with cooking and cleaning in the holidays.
“Fussy and disorganised” …that’s the Art teacher
So I entered the last 2 years of compulsory education. I had chosen my options, which were as science based as possible. I wanted to study medicine and unfortunately I had told my parents and teachers this aged about 7, so everyone was counting on this actually happening. That initial pressure of being Oxbridge material had stuck with me.
Inside, I knew I was different. I pretended to like pop stars and boys like the other girls did, but I didn’t really. I pretended to like make-up but actually found it felt extremely unpleasant to wear. I liked animals and nature and thinking about things and being on my own. And I was the most gullible, easiest to tease, bully or pick on child ever. And I repeatedly kept doing whatever it was that made people pick on me. And I had no idea what it was. No amount of masking my undiagnosed autism, ever really hid it. I knew I was different. Everyone else knew I was different.
But overall, academically I was doing ok- ish. My fourth year report refers to me “having ability but not quite attaining what I am capable of”
I was told I needed to be more disciplined and determined – to get things done on time – to be more consistent.
My math’s teacher was worried about my attitude; yep, so was my French teacher; my physics teacher criticised my ‘forgetfulness’; my chemistry teacher said I needed to apply myself more. The careers teacher was concerned about me being “nervous over using the telephone”
But there were some positives too.. I went to a religious school so R.E lessons were compulsory. I opted for the GCSE called ‘Religion and Life’. It was interesting and there were plenty of philosophical discussions to be had. Mr Paul, my R.E teacher is firmly stuck in my memory. I started secondary school in 1984 – and he suggested we read the George Orwell book of the same name. he welcomed my questioning mind. Here’s what he said about me….
“Emma has so many ideas that the effect can be torrential! I am considering issuing the rest of the group with umbrellas so they can survive the deluge! Actually, Emma is invaluable as a catalyst of ideas and her learning and grasp of religious ideas is very promising.”
That was a nice thing to say about me. But I bet you can imagine how I was starting to feel confused, troubled and frightened. I was still mostly getting A grades for my achievements, but I didn’t look like I was putting enough effort in. I was distractable and inconsistent and forgetful. Some teachers thought I was great. Others thought I had an attitude problem and found me exasperating.
The background to this was of course my autism – my very different sensory processing system that found some noises so painful, it was even agreed by the school that I didn’t have to go in the woodwork or metalwork classrooms. But the impact of my autism was not just academic – yes I was dogmatic, I was distractable and so on. But I was also bullied mercilessly. I found fitting in and making friends painfully difficult. I also had some horrific life events to cope with that were secret and almost unbearably painful to cope with. My life outside of lessons was horrendous – and none of those teachers knew.
In my fifth, and final year, the teachers seemed more positive about me. Probably because I did well in my mock GCSE’s. My report comments are mixed, but so so many of them are describing a very typical autistic girl.
Listen to this positive one: “Emma has an occasional tendency to gallop off into the sunset in the pursuit of an idea that attracts her, but which is not strictly relevant. But I suspect that is just the way she is. A super student and a lovely person”
My confidence in my cleverness was diminishing and my physics teacher describes how I underestimated my own ability.
My chemistry teacher refers to me being disorganised and “not averse to stopping him mid-flow to clear up any point that has not been made clear” – I’m not sure if that was meant as a positive or a negative. Either way, it’s pretty autistic.
I was feeling relief I think that school would soon finish, and I could leave. I planned to take A levels in a College of Further Education – a much better setting for me. The teachers tended to drop the dark sarcasm in the classroom once you got to call them by their first names, instead of Sir or Miss.
So I sat my GCSE’s. I did well. I went off to take science A-levels – but as the college staff reported, I did not cope well with the transition. I tried A levels a second time. But no. Education just wasn’t working for me. If you have a read of my blog about how I learn – and the difficulties this causes my teachers, then you’ll understand more about how the combination of sensory, social and teaching factors just don’t work for me at all.
So we skip forwards 30 years and I’m off to do my PhD. I’ll be a doctor – but not the medical surgeon I had planned to be. My PhD is about neurodiversity and employment.
And this is because I have been successful in my career. Being a catalyst of ideas is useful. Being nervous of using the telephone is still problematic, but where my skills are valued, colleagues are often – but not always, happy to make accommodations. My differences can be an asset. I have an appreciation of the world being a far more complex place than I did as a child. I still call people out when I need to – I’d still tell that history teacher he was being sexist. But I’d be more diplomatic with my maths teacher, and I certainly wouldn’t tell him he was “wrong” just because his way of working out a maths problem was different to mine.
I got hold of these old reports when I went to see my family in early September. I didn’t even know they were still in existence. I wondered if my autism would be apparent when I read them. Judge for yourself.
I struggled my way through school, without knowing why. Surely a bright, talkative girl would be successful? But she wasn’t. Well not in the way school expected anyway.
Usually in life, I have been most successful when I have played to my strengths, and other people have played to my strengths.
I’d like teachers to think about the bigger picture when they are writing or thinking about pupil’s “stupid behaviour” or “attitude problems”. Neurodiversity could be behind it. Especially when you view the bigger picture and see the pupil’s strengths as well as the issues. These characteristics often create a picture of someone who experiences the world differently – and that can bring innovation as well as challenges.
Teachers also don’t always know what goes on outside of the classroom either, and the impact of these things on a child too.
School age Emma was academically bright, full of ideas, disorganised, forgetful, distracted. She had a tendency to go off on a tangent, to question and to say what she thought. She was – and still has, nervousness around using the telephone. Still accident prone when it comes to doing P.E. Still can’t even be in the room with certain noises, smells or lighting. At times still socially awkward.
Unfortunately, school put me off learning. Put me off making friends. And put me off myself, if truth be known.
Our son is home educated. He had a fantastic primary school experience but once we saw that some secondary school teachers still used the same old sarcasm, still viewed difficulties with writing, copying from the blackboard or having the correct equipment at the correct time as “behaviour issues”, we decided to educate him ourselves. And we are all thriving because of it.
I do feel things you know! I may have hiked several miles along the Welsh coast path – and back again – to see if I could “walk off” my dislocated knee. I may have been “incredibly strong and brave” during labour and breathed through my contractions without a cry passing my lips. And I even spent a week away at a children’s camp aged 11, with a broken arm that everyone thought was “nothing to worry about” because whilst I told them I was injured, no one took me seriously because I just wasn’t saying ouch in the right places. I was still hurting though.
Conversely, I can also stress about sensations on my skin that doctors can find no evidence for; and feel so unwell before a thunderstorm I want to curl up in a ball and hide away. More than once I have visited the doctor with physical symptoms only to be told there is nothing wrong with me.
Just because I don’t “feel” pain in a conventional way, doesn’t mean I am braver, weaker, stronger, or more sensitive than other people. When I am unwell or injured my symptoms may not even be experienced as pain – frequently my mood and emotions let me know that something physical is going on. However, when I am distressed or emotional, these feelings may be experienced as physical pain – or more commonly as sensory processing disturbances. Changes to my vision or vestibular processing for instance.
I can’t explain how this works but I accept it in exactly the way I accept my other sensory processing differences. Synaesthesia is widely documented and believed as a variation on human experience. I experience some music and colours in this way myself. I put my unusual experiences of pain, illness and emotions down to a similar phenomena.
I have learned to trust my own experience of my body rather than that of medics and interpret my symptoms accordingly. Unfortunately I am rarely believed. I therefore have a dilemma: do I continue to say ouch in the wrong places – and be viewed as a hypochondriac and dismissed as having nothing wrong. Or do I tell the truth and describe my symptoms honestly and inform the doctor of what the symptoms are most likely indicating – leaving myself open to being viewed as delusional. This is a very likely outcome of me sharing my symptoms truthfully with doctors, because I have a psychiatric history. Or do I lie and try to use the words and terms they’d understand – for example, I could pretend that I was feeling the pain of my injury far more severely than I was. This isn’t an option for me – I can’t justify lying in this situation.
Or do I avoid seeking treatment for any physical or mental health issues I may be having? Do I join the many other autistic people who have poor health outcomes, just because my atypical experiences are not believed – despite me clearly being lucid, articulate and reasonable. Goodness knows how people who are less confident and articulate cope!
Caring for someone else who says ouch in the wrong places…
For a long time I assumed I was either totally unfeeling – or totally oversensitive. I also believed a lot of lies I had told myself or believed from others. Sometimes I assumed I was somehow stronger and better than other people who appeared so weak and lacking in emotional strength to me – those people who got sentimental about things, or lost their tempers, or got flustered in a crisis. At other times I felt weak and pathetic, and the worse human being on the planet because I couldn’t cope with the little things that didn’t bother other people, or I’d know something was wrong with me, but no one would believe me. Perhaps I was mentally ill; perhaps so damaged I was beyond repair? A fraud; an alien; evil. I had a perfectly logical reasoning for each of these potential explanations based on comparing myself to others and believing the lies I told myself or others told me. Of course, none of these were true.
Then I had a child. And there was suddenly another human who was perfect, untainted by the world, definitely not an alien or evil – but very much like me. Once I had spent a very long time coming to the conclusion that I hadn’t damaged him in some way, we sought clinical input on his differences – those differences that were very similar to my differences. And we learned amongst other things that he is autistic.
It didn’t take long to realise that I am autistic too.
Our son has better health outcomes because we understand that not everybody experiences things in the same way. All of us process sensory information in individual ways. Whilst there is a typical range of sensory experiences, most people have experienced unusual sensory processing at some point and can relate to the experiences that many autistic people have everyday. Most of us will relate to how our hearing becomes acutely sensitive when we are scared and even the quietest noise can startle us with how loud it sounds; or the feeling of “sea legs” when we have come ashore after being on a boat and our brain is telling our limbs that everything is still moving.
Autistic people may experience these extreme types of sensory processing experience as our “normal”. We may process the world in a muted way where sounds, lights and smells barely register with us – or we may experience sounds, lights and smells as intense or even painful sensations. Most of us experience a mixture of these variations – and they may fluctuate depending on what else is going on; our environment, mood and general wellbeing etc.
Knowing how we feel physically and emotionally is determined by our sensory processing system. The sense that really plays a part in knowing when to say “ouch” is interoception. Our interoceptive processing system enables us to recognise body signals like being hungry, tired, needing the toilet, pain and emotions. Just like the other senses it can work within a fairly typical range – or it can be muted or intense – and remember this can vary for each of us on a day to day basis too. Have you have ever not noticed you need the loo until the last moment because you have been so engrossed in what you are doing you haven’t recognised the signal in your body? Or known something was up but you couldn’t work out what? Or realised you were tired or hungry. That’s interoception.
Learning about interoception has taught me an important life lesson. Compassion. And also self-compassion. I am no better or stronger than anyone else just because I don’t feel pain from injuries unless they are very serious. Nor am I a pathetic loser because the sensation created in my body by needing to wait for something is so intense it makes me feel edgy, uncomfortable and completely unable to shift my focus onto anything else. I may not feel love for other people as a sensation, but I absolutely love them with all my (very logical!) heart.
And just because other people may not take my experiences seriously doesn’t mean I should disregard those experiences.
All human beings have basic needs – warmth, safety, food, love and so on. When we look after other people we need to meet these needs, regardless of whether the person we are caring for is aware of the need. A baby cries so we check out whether they need feeding, changing or a cuddle. If our child doesn’t notice they need a drink, we still give them one – to do otherwise would be neglectful. Our child may not notice they have bruised themselves falling over – but we still check them out for injuries and treat them with care. A child that may not be feeling an emotion we might call “love” or who may not turn to us for comfort when they are upset, still needs to be shown love and comfort – even if this is on their terms rather than our own. Perhaps this isn’t through cuddles and praise, maybe it’s through listening to them talk about their favourite interest or letting them press their feet into your tummy while they play on their own with a toy – different sensory processing systems require different responses.
Having a child made me appreciate the disservice I was doing myself by viewing my experience of interoception with a judgmental attitude. It’s not surprising – emotions are what makes humans most human. If I asked you to describe a robot, it would probably look human and have all the various sense organs that humans have and do very humanlike things, but lack emotions. My unusual auditory experiences for example, are much more accepted than my unusual interoceptive experiences. Ultrasensitive hearing, the ability to smell someone in the next room, or instantly spot a typing error on a printed page are unlikely to result in judgmental labels such as ‘evil’ or ’emotionally unstable’. A lack of typical emotions seems to equate to an almost robot-like lack of being human. And in my experience it is easier for people to treat others badly if they don’t view them as human.
I need to treat myself with the same compassion that I treat other people. Extend my willingness to meet other people’s needs in unconventional ways with meeting my own needs in unconventional ways when I need to.
Soothing my own “ouches”
Once I had accepted that I wasn’t in fact evil, damaged, an alien or any of the other explanations I gave for my undiagnosed autism, I set about understanding how I actually process the world. It’s been a tough journey, but thankfully is getting easier.
Resilience is often discussed within mental health. Fortunately we can learn to become more resilient and this is all the easier when we explore this from an autistic rather than neurotypical point of view. A person whose experience of sensory processing is one of Sensory Trauma and constant invalidation from clinicians is severely disadvantaged. But many autistic people are fantastically resilient by the sheer fact they are functioning in a world that is biased towards the majority of people who are not autistic. We also tend to be able to self soothe by using our bodies and senses to regulate ourselves – this may be through our intense interests, our repetitive movements, or our ability to follow routines. Sadly these strategies that promote autistic resilience can be seen as part of the medical model disorder of autism. Fortunately autistic voices are getting stronger and society is recognising the social model of disability and the unique strengths that autistic people possess.
But it still hurts!
At this moment I have little faith in the medical system. I continue to say ouch in the wrong places because that is how my sensory processing system works. It is not broken so cannot be fixed. I have always been like this and always will be. I refuse to lie and pretend and say ouch in the “right” places.
The world needs to change. I am unable to receive the treatment I require for physical or mental health issues because I cannot articulate them in the accepted language of clinicians. I prefer to avoid seeking help because of past experiences of being mislabelled and badly treated. Although my autism has now been correctly diagnosed, it was overshadowed for many years and those past labels will always be there.
It is unlikely that in my lifetime I will be able to say ouch when I hurt, and describe my physical and emotional experiences in my own genuine way and be listened to and accepted. What a shame – and how shockingly bad that is for a society that sees itself as modern and inclusive.
There are no easy answers – I keep chipping away at the system when I have the energy – and keep showing myself compassion and self-care. If this blog resonates with your own experience or you wish to share it to spread the message further, then please go ahead and share.
Interoception is the sense most recently added to the five senses I was taught about at school, plus the two others added more recently. Learning more about this eighth sense could make a big difference to many people’s lives. Understanding that we each have different levels and ways of feeling things is as significant as realising we each hear and see things differently. We need interoception to be considered alongside all the other senses – and without judgment.
Dear Doctor, Dentist, Hairdresser, Kindly Neighbour reaching out to touch me during conversation…
I may like you, I may not. It doesn’t matter. This is MY body. I do not have to give you access to it.
Please do not presume you can touch me – whatever your motives or profession.
I may ask you to touch me, I may ask you stop. Please respond with respect.
If I react by pulling away, asking you to stop, or acting in any way distressed then stop immediately.
Do NOT ask if I’m OK. I’m clearly not and it is not for me to justify why, it is my choice. Instead consider what you can do to make this easier for me.
Ask me if you can touch me or tell me what you are going to do.
Give me time to process that and wait for me to agree before touching me.
Do not tell me you will be quick; it will soon be over; or it doesn’t hurt. Do not keep going when I say stop. These actions are disrespectful at best and abusive at worst.
Maybe I don’t like being touched by other people because of how my sensory processing system works – many autistic people don’t. Maybe it’s because it triggers memories stored deep inside my body – of abuse, pain and trauma. Maybe I just don’t like it. Maybe one day it is OK and one day it isn’t. That is none of your business. I don’t need to “get over it” so that you can touch me. I don’t have to dissociate so that you can touch me. I don’t have to put up with it so you can touch me. You just need to take my lead because it is my body.
If you are reaching out physically to connect with me emotionally and I don’t reciprocate, then thank you for wanting to connect with me. Please don’t take the reaction of my body pulling away as rejection. Please find a different way of connecting with me that works for us both.
I do not need to give a reason for not wanting to be touched – however, please consider that every person you meet has an inner life that you may know little about. Autism, sensory processing disorder, PTSD, trauma, abuse. Or perhaps they just don’t want to be touched – that’s fine too.
Make no assumptions about how I wish to be touched. There is no hierarchy of body parts that you can have freer access to than others. It is all me and it is all my body. You don’t know how I process the sensation, and you don’t know how I perceive your touch. If I feel violated, frightened or under threat, your motives are irrelevant – telling me you won’t hurt me is irrelevant. Showing me you won’t hurt me by stopping IS relevant.
It is 2020 – this should not need to be said.
My attempt at upgrading my mobile phone online failed…yet again.
There was nothing left but to mentally and physically prepare myself and head off to town. Shops are a sensory nightmare for me. The lights, the rows of stuff that flash by at eye level like a strobe light as I walk down the aisles. The noise and smell and the echoey acoustics. Everything about large stores is distressing and overwhelms me, so I avoid them or go in with a small list and a pair of noise cancelling headphones.
A difference this time was the need for face coverings. I am tactile defensive. Light touch feels excruciatingly uncomfortable. The area around our mouths is particularly sensitive and I’m well aware of what I need to do to be able to wear a mask or face covering:
- Soft material
- A smell that is familiar and calming
- Nothing touching my lips if possible
- Relax and breathe through my nose and remember to keep nose breathing rather than panting with anxiety – the hot breath sensation feels suffocating
- In fact a tight snood type face covering feels better than the light touch of a mask
I’ve got used to how people look wearing masks now but still find it disturbing at times. So, I prepared myself for the experience and in I went and headed for the mobile phone department. I knew what I wanted and just needed to get things sorted out and leave. My husband, in the meantime would grab the groceries.
I was regulated as I entered the store and things were ok. I began my conversation with the staff member but found I had no idea if and when he was talking to me. I was avoiding eye contact and my usual ploy of looking at a person’s mouth was ineffective as it was covered up. As a child, doctors thought I had a hearing impairment and assumed I lip read. I suppose I do to an extent but not because I can’t hear – I hear too much so can’t work out what I should be focusing on. Seeing a person’s mouth move indicates to me where the noise is coming from.
I apologised and asked the man to repeat himself yet again – and then explained that I was having difficulty understanding him. He was great and said he’d take his mask off. I went to take mine off too but he sharply told me not to! At this point I realised I was becoming overwhelmed. I start misunderstanding simple things when I feel overloaded and can appear “not with it” to anyone observing me. The man began talking louder and slower and I thanked him for taking his mask off and explained that I wasn’t deaf, just struggling to understand.
So there I was, attempting a simple task that I had rehearsed in my head from start to finish. Yet I was beginning to panic. My breath felt hot and I wanted to pull my mask away from my mouth. The lights felt brighter and the man’s voice had got louder and slower and I needed to retune my ear to understand his sudden change of tone and volume. Give me a monotone voice any day! Excitable people whose pitch goes up and down and who wave their hands about enthusiastically are so difficult to understand – it’s like they keep swapping languages mid conversation!
We got to the end of the transaction and I set off to find my husband.
Now, I know my husband well. He has fortunately kept the same look for most of the 27 years I’ve been with him. But could I find him today? No! I couldn’t remember what he was wearing and everybody had a mask on. He looked totally different. Not, “oh there he is, my familiar husband – but wearing a mask” – but like he had completely and utterly shape shifted into an unfamiliar person. So I sent him a text. I was still functioning enough to be able to think of what to do. But I was getting hotter. My body takes a while to process temperature changes. It is another reason why I dislike shopping. I can go in and out of shops in regular time, but my brain processes the temperature fluctuation between indoors and outdoors slightly slower than regular time. I have this horrible, uncomfortable time lag with the temperature change catching up with me yet not matching what my eyes and brain are telling me is going on in my surroundings.
Not only was my face feeling horrible. My breath was hot and irritating me and of course I was panicking and breathing harder which made it even worse. My whole body started feeling uncomfortable and I had to fight the urge to rip my mask off and then rip off all of my clothes and scratch myself until I could erase the dreadful sensation off of my skin.
Relief. I found my husband. I was probably a bit jittery and edgy and I asked him what was on the list and could I go and get it. This is our usual ploy on the rare occasions we go shopping together. Give me something specific to do. But one item at a time; while he does the bulk of the shopping.
It nearly worked. My husband asked me to choose something for pudding and pointed me in the direction of the chilled cabinet. The reason it nearly worked is… whilst he gave me a specific task…he also gave my overloaded brain a choice. I needed to choose a pudding from a cabinet full of puddings.
“What shall I choose?” I asked him
“You know what we all like” he said
(and in my head I thought about how I had just asked him a proper question and he had not answered it. Why oh why couldn’t he be like me and take things literally and answer my question so I knew what to do. If I ask any more I will look like I am hassling him – I’m an intelligent woman, surely I can decide on what we have for dessert)
So I stood and looked…
And I felt the tears welling up because all I could see in front of me were coloured boxes that were physically moving around and not keeping still long enough for me to choose one.
And my brain was thinking “Emma, just look at you. You can’t even make a simple choice” and my breath was getting hotter; my clothes were feeling itchier; the noise was echoing and swirling around my head. I screwed up my eyes to reduce the glare and I opted for something I could rely on…
I engaged my good, solid, logical side.
Let’s think about puddings. If I can think of one then maybe I can imagine it in my head, like a picture. And if I have a picture in my head then I can hopefully match it to one of these boxes that are dancing about, tormenting me on the shelf.
So, what pudding shall I choose?
I cannot grab at something in my imagination. I have to logically and consciously work it out; so I began my mental checklist…
- Don’t just opt for what you had last time we had a pudding. (I am super proud of that one – it took me decades not to just eat the same thing every mealtime. There is a safe familiarity about knowing what you are going to eat anyway, but if I was ever put on the spot and asked to choose something to eat, opting for the thing I ate last was a quick way of responding. And unless the person had been there at that mealtime, I could get away with it and appear decisive and confident!)
- What do we all like?
- Not chocolate…one of us can’t eat it
- Not rice pudding…the texture – eugh!
- Nothing with gelatine … we are all veggie
“This is a customer service announcement…”
At that point I physically jumped. I could see my husband approaching but the noise of the announcement sent my heart thumping and my ears ringing and I completely lost my train of thought. And my hot breath and the sensation of the mask intensified. I wanted to rip off everything that was touching my skin…and then rip my skin off too!
But I know that supermarkets are difficult for me. I could feel the usual sensory overload increasing and I knew the inevitable consequence of trying to battle through this, would be to completely overwhelm myself to the point that I either shutdown completely in order to protect myself from further overwhelm – or become so overwhelmed I was unable to control my responses.
So I said to my husband that I needed to go outside and could he finish without me. I then looked straight ahead and plotted my route out of the store. I had a kind of tunnel vision going on and I fixed my gaze on a distant point and like a guided missile I aimed for it. Had I been able to physically see the people I undoubtedly brushed past quite rudely on my way out, I would have apologised. But in that moment, I knew I had to get out and regulate myself. I had enough processing power to plot a route and follow it – but none left for adapting to anything that got in my way once I had executed my escape plan!
As I stepped outside I ripped off my mask and walked away from the store. The experience was nothing new. It is my normal. It is intense, painful and distressing. But expected. I was proud that I had recognised it and not battled on – you cannot win a sensory war by willpower. I also knew how to regulate myself.
I found myself an upright post to lean against and press with my whole body. I noticed where my body touched the post and where my feet touched the ground and I pressed and pressed and tensed all my muscles and then relaxed them until I was confident that I was in my body again.
I looked up at the sky and relaxed until a seagull flew into view and I let myself notice it and watch it, enjoying the unpredictability and respite from having to control something.
I breathed the cool air through my nose and noticed how it felt and I breathed in and out slowly.
I got my phone out and played on an app that I find soothing and I spoke to myself in my mind with gentleness. Not berating myself for not coping. Nor did I let myself focus on any negative thoughts about the store, or the staff and customers.
Actually, I had coped well. These things happen. I needed to enter the store and I had planned it in advance. I got myself out before I was overwhelmed and I regulated myself. I had not needed to wear a face covering for such a length of time before and I shan’t do it again. I’ll avoid shopping or take breaks.
I carried on with my day. I also recognised the vulnerability to further overload that happens when I have to endure sensory pain. I took things easy and didn’t put myself in situations that had the potential for further sensory overwhelm.
Over the next few days I reset myself by allowing my body, brain and senses to seek out and repeat the sensations that would soothe me.
But my fragility has lasted. I had to endure further stresses. Not noise and lights this time but emotional. Again, I planned my response. I followed my plan. I used self-care strategies proactively and treated myself with compassion.
This time my already fragile body responded by feeling severe pain in my ears – most of my senses are now functioning at a ‘normal for me’ level, but not my auditory processing. My hearing is so sensitive everything hurts. It is a week since the experience in the store and I am functioning well enough, to everyone looking in at me. I am fairly happy. I have coped with my ups and downs just as well as anyone would. I am productive and focused, and I haven’t treated myself or anyone else with anything less than respect and dignity.
But the physical pain is almost unbearable. I have cried a few times in desperation as I cannot escape it. Most of my senses are fairly well regulated but my sense of hearing will not settle. Every noise pierces my ears and hurts me. The noise of cutlery on crockery is so bad I cannot eat with my family. It feels like everyone is shouting at me. The most tormenting noise comes from within me though. Despite my expensive noise cancelling headphones and almost round the clock self-care and self-regulation strategies, I cannot find peace.
I can drown the noise out with very loud, rhythmic music but I cannot escape the noise of my heart beating and my blood rushing through my body when the external noise subsides.
This internal noise has accompanied my life. It is not always there but I can find it when I want it and in fact, it gave me some comfort as a child, as well as frightening me at times. On occasions it is so loud it physically hurts. Now is one of those times.
I remember as a little girl, we sometimes needed to get the doctor out as I would sit crying and rocking and banging my head against something to make the noise and pain stop. I can remember him coming in the night to sedate me. I would gladly welcome him now!
Each noise, whether internal or external is like a sharp stab of pain in my head. I understand why as a child I would bang my head and rock. In fact, I woke this morning with a fine matt of hair on the back of my head from the rocking I often do in my sleep when I am dysregulated.
Gradually it is easing, and I remind myself that this is how my life is and always has been. I will probably always experience times like this. When I keep my senses regulated I can cope with fluctuations in sensory information much better. When I am in a state of distress, everything can become the last straw.
There hasn’t been a last straw this time. I have been able to apply the healthy strategies I have learned to keep myself functioning.
The consequences of Sensory Trauma can be catastrophic. Terms like “meltdown” have become almost common place and do not capture the pain, severity and impact of sensory overload. It is not just a short-lived reaction born of poor tolerance and low resilience. Even when a meltdown is avoided, my body pays a price. My body has been physiologically activated and is hypervigilant and on alert. Without the escape of shutdown or catharsis of meltdown I wait in a sensory nightmare, hoping it will soon stop.
Experiences of sensory overload may be misdiagnosed as psychosis, or personality disorder. Perhaps they are viewed as attention seeking or over-reactions. Understanding my sensory processing system has helped me accept my experiences and not be scared of them. However, they are real experiences and have not disappeared just because I know what they are.
The world is an overwhelming place. Even with my practiced strategies and proactive approach to managing my life, there are inevitable times where Sensory Trauma occurs for me. My experiences may sound dramatic, but they are totally normal in my experience of the world. All day everyday I need to proactively regulate myself and keep the build up of potential Sensory Trauma at bay. It takes a huge amount of energy, but thankfully less energy than spending my life in a constant state of dysregulation.
I am tired now because I am in pain. I have had needed to keep myself living slowly and calmly so I don’t flee away from the pain or absorb myself in distracting but destructive pursuits to take my mind off it. I have incorporated endless self-care into my days and hold on to the knowledge that this will pass at some point. It always does.
If you know someone who cannot articulate their sensory experiences in speech, please consider how they may be experiencing the world.
Challenging behaviour, masking, meltdowns, shutdowns – look beyond the behaviour and stereotypes.
To learn more about Sensory Trauma visit
I’m sat at my desk at work. Outside the lorries have been reversing non-stop since 8am. Each “beep beep beep” sends an arrow of pain and shock straight into my chest whilst simultaneously burning my eyes and ears. I can hear my colleagues laughing and joking in the corridor outside, completely oblivious to my pain and to the lorries. I don’t want to go and see them because the tsunami of perfume and aftershave mixed with the sudden change in brightness when I leave my dark room for the fluorescently lit corridor will hit me so hard it will almost wind me. And their voices will get even louder, and the laughter will hurt my ears and make me jump and sound like someone chucking a bag full of spanners into a washing machine on spin cycle.
But it’s ok. I stay where I am, hyperalert and shivering at the thought of someone opening the door to my office to see me. If they do, I will need to quickly whack my mask of normality on, and pretend all is well – and nod my head and make eye contact and fight the urge to hide under my desk and sob. If I am lucky I will still be able to speak but will probably say something a bit awkward or slightly out of place as my overloaded brain tries to coordinate thoughts into spoken language.
I’ve tried to tell people how my world is. Some doctors thought I was mentally ill. Some colleagues thought I was unsociable. Teachers thought I was lazy, distracted or not trying. Some friends thought I was weird. Some partners assumed I was overreacting. I always knew I was different but couldn’t quite say why – if I wasn’t an alien; and it wasn’t pathological; it couldn’t have been spiritual, then what was it?
The trouble is this is my reality every single day. All day. It is not an overreaction. It is not an exaggeration. It fluctuates so can be difficult for myself or others to anticipate.
This is how my sensory processing works. Nothing more, nothing less. Simple. My sensory processing system works differently to the majority of peoples.
Why is my sensory processing different?
Again, the answer is relatively straightforward. I am autistic. I was born with a sensory processing system that works differently to other peoples.
My earliest hospital notes refer to how I would not feed or would feed very slowly and if someone persevered with my bottle of milk, I would typically fall asleep whilst being fed.
Roll on 47 years and I am still the last to finish my meal. A few weeks ago, I was discussing this with a friend who is far more knowledgeable about sensory processing than me. We were both eating an apple and I discovered that I have a completely different awareness of sensations in my mouth than she does. I can feel food on my lips and the tip of my tongue, and then again as I swallow, but in the centre of my mouth I have almost no sensation. This means that when I eat I feel very stressed because I never know when food is going to reach the back of my mouth. I frequently gag and I am highly anxious about eating because swallowing often comes as a surprise and catches me out. My awareness of how my body feels is muted.
This is quite different to how my hearing works. My brain tends to process sounds as very loud and harsh. Some people may refer to this as hypersensitivity. Whereas my brain processes sensations in my body as quite muted. Hyposensitive interoception you might say. These terms are all well and good for clinicians who are not autistic – they tend to feel comfortable using their sensory experiences as the “norm” and measure my experiences as “too much” or “too little”. My normal is different though and always has been.
This experience with my friend and the apple helped me understand more about how my sensory system works. Interestingly I was yawning non-stop by the end of our focused fruit eating session, and I did have a lie down and sleep afterwards. This is very typical of how a human being’s nervous system works when we are in danger. Fight, flight, or freeze. My parasympathetic nervous system responded to my stress and I couldn’t help but crash out for an hour or two. Just like I did as that tiny baby who felt distress at having something in her mouth from the moment she was born.
My reactions to certain sensory information are totally proportional to what my brain is processing. It is logical to run away from danger, or fight if your life is being threatened. Completely normal to freeze if you are terrified, or collapse and disconnect if everything is too overwhelming.
The difference between myself and someone who experiences eating an apple as mundane; or laughing colleagues as insignificant; or reversing lorries as mildly irritating at the most – is the way our sensory processing systems work. My brain processes those sounds and sensations differently to the other person I have just described. My brain gears my body up for action or inaction because it perceives a threat that the other person does not.
My reactions are normal for me. Their reactions are normal for them.
I have always been like this because I am autistic, and for me this is how my sensory processing system works. It is not a choice; it is part of my neurology. Other autistic people have their own sensory processing experiences because we are not just made up of our neurology, we have our physiology; our life histories with all their joys and traumas; our individual personalities; and our own psychologies, capabilities and characters.
Each of us perceives the world differently. To me, a vacuum cleaner may be a terrifying source of noise that looms towards me, spewing its musty, dusty smell and roaring like a belligerent dragon. To you it may be an innocuous piece of cleaning equipment whose only fault is it takes up too much room in the cupboard under the stairs! I understand perfectly well what it is for. I’m certainly not scared of it and I absolutely don’t feel any emotions towards vacuum cleaners in any form – positive or negative – they are vacuum cleaners for goodness sake!
For me, this piece of equipment causes me great distress because of the effect it has upon my senses. For you it is fine. We both see the same item, understand its intended function in the same way, but our relationship with it is very different. It causes me pain in my ears and makes my body react as if I am being attacked… It cleans your carpet.
There is no right and wrong in this situation. We perceive things differently. A bit of mutual understanding can go a long way. So can a bit of common courtesy. I wouldn’t do something that hurt you, so please don’t do something that hurts me. I cannot desensitise myself to this, its how my body works.
Of course, many of us grow up assuming our perception of the world is shared. I didn’t know that most people don’t have to have their food arranged in a certain way because vinegar or sauce touching bread would require the whole meal to be thrown away due to the unbearable texture created when bread gets damp. You may find that outrageously picky and assume I am spoilt or attention seeking. You may assume that everyone finds the smell of perfume enjoyable (they don’t!) or that everyone likes to look at spreadsheets on a computer (believe me I can’t!) or that brushing your hair is easy (some days, it really, really isn’t!).
My reactions to sensory information may well appear unusual to you. But for me they are logical and proportional.
Spending my day to day life in anticipation of what distressing sensory experiences may happen next takes a toll on my health and wellbeing. It is not healthy to spend my life in an activated state, hyperalert because I am scanning for latent danger. The ordinary activities that happen frequently throughout the day are an unavoidable potential source of trauma for me. And maybe people won’t understand when I demonstrate how distressing they are – perhaps they will think I am overreacting or have challenging behaviour. Maybe they will pathologise my reactions and mislabel them or not even believe me at all.
My experience of the world and the way I react to it has impacted on how I am perceived by others; how they have responded towards me and how that has affected our ongoing relationships. It made me more vulnerable to other types of adverse life events and left me growing up without a sense of agency. I was left invalidated and unheard.
I’m not the only one…
Autistic people have been describing their sensory differences for a long, long time. Blogs, interviews, and personal testimonies are filled with evidence of sensory differences and the effects these have on autistic people. Autism and trauma are discussed together frequently. They can manifest in similar ways and be difficult to tell apart. Being autistic increases vulnerability to trauma – of course it does! Being in a minority in a neurotypically biased world where your differences are perceived as deficits is not a good starting point for anyone.
But there is more to it than that…
The way I perceive the world through my senses is in itself traumatic. Repeatedly experiencing unavoidable pain every day that makes my body react as if it is in mortal danger is traumatic. Not being believed is traumatic. On top of all the trauma I have experienced due to the impact of my autism and the adverse life events that I have been through, I have experienced trauma since birth. Perhaps even before birth. This is sensory trauma.
Sensory Trauma has been hidden in plain sight for a long time. It is time to start some conversations about this lived experience of autistic people. It is time to be listened to. At Autism Wellbeing we have prepared a position paper about Sensory Trauma and made a short video about it.
I would like to hear other peoples experiences of sensory trauma. We are publishing our book soon and are interested in feedback on our position paper.
Our position paper has been published by ourselves at Autism Wellbeing because we want it to be read as widely as possible. It has only just been made available – please leave a review on amazon if you decide to buy it. You can purchase the position paper here:
For USA based people please use https://www.amazon.com/Sensory-Trauma-DIFFERENCE-EXPERIENCE-Wellbeing-ebook/dp/B08JKW5H1N/ref=mp_s_a_1_2?dchild=1&keywords=Sensory+trauma+autism+sensory+differences&qid=1601370659&sr=8-2
All humans have needs, starting with the absolute essentials we need to stay alive such as food, water and the air we breathe; along with all sorts of other needs depending on our individual personalities, physiology, social and emotional requirements.
Whereas the essentials are things all humans require, we may each need different things in order to be able to thrive and reach our potential. Do we ever reach our potential as humans? Who knows? But what I do know is that on the journey towards self-actualization we must consider our uniqueness as individuals.
And for me that includes my autism.
What makes this different for me as an autistic person?
Like many autistic people growing up, I was painfully aware that I was fundamentally different to my peers. I did my best to fit in with them in order to minimise the teasing; the exasperation I created in others; and the bullying. This involved a common strategy used by many people, including autistic people called ‘camouflaging’ or ‘masking’.
As a girl and young woman, autistic masking involved me acting in a way that meant I appeared more similar to my peers than I was – this included pretending I was interested in things that girls should be interested in like bands, boys and make-up. It involved me not asking too many questions that would expose my naivety and my particular thinking style – going along with conversations that involved euphemisms and slang in the hope that all would become apparent. It rarely did!
And hiding any mannerisms, movements or ideas that exposed my autistic differences.
Interacting like this meant I frequently missed out on getting my questions answered – or even asked, most of the time! It meant that I never quite understood how friendships and relationships truly worked, I just sort of understood what it was people did within them – and I tried to copy as best I could. I avoided many social situations because they did not appeal to me, and I was not particularly popular because I did not appeal to my peers either.
All in all, I missed out on lots of knowledge and information that my peers were able to gain through intuition and knowing how to ask the “right” questions, rather than the random, unfiltered questions that went off on a tangent like mine frequently did. My social development wasn’t behind that of my peers because I lacked capacity for understanding, it was behind because I lacked opportunities for gaining understanding. I was too busy masking.
For example, I was bright enough to know that asking my classmates what the technical difference was between the two intimate-relationship based expressions: ‘getting off with’ and ‘having it off with’ would end in them ridiculing me. So, I did not seek clarity. I tried to logically make sense of the language to find the answer out for myself, but failed. That boy stuff all seemed quite odd anyway, as did most of human behaviour, and my naivety and vulnerability exposed me to many risks and left me ill equipped to cope with relationships, and understanding and advocating my needs, rights and desires.
Another negative impact of masking my autism meant I was unable to regulate my senses. I did not recognise or appreciate the impact that noisy, brightly lit, and smelly environments had on me, so I didn’t avoid them or limit them. I forced myself to carry on whilst on the verge of total overwhelm – or I shut myself off so that I could function without feeling anything at all.
Opportunities for gaining knowledge, and for developing decent coping strategies, self-advocating and asserting myself were denied due to my survival strategy of masking my undiagnosed autism.
I’ve done OK, I’m beginning to thrive and I’m recognising my potential and the value of my uniqueness. I’ve got to this point through gaining acceptance of how I am, and by playing to my autistic strengths.
What has this journey looked like for me?
My journey is ongoing, I certainly haven’t arrived at a destination where I have found my purpose – but on the good days I am beginning to thrive instead of just about making it through yet another day of struggles. Life has become less of a struggle – but there was no “Eureka!” moment of throwing away that mask, embracing my autism and finding the world had suddenly become welcoming of my neurodivergence. The world remains biased towards people who on the whole are not like me, society still needs to change and become more inclusive. I am grateful because I have more insight and opportunities than I have ever had that I can use to make my life better.
Unmasking and being authentic
I have always wanted to be accepted for being me, I have longed for people who will appreciate my questions; my unique perspectives; and my differences. But that doesn’t mean I can act impulsively or disregard other people’s feelings – even when those feelings are very different to my own and seem illogical to me.
Humans are social animals. I find social occasions challenging due to my sensory and cognitive processing, but I recognise that I have social responsibility towards my fellow humans. Like many autistic people I am passionate about equality and fairness and I become distressed at the injustices I see in the world and continually seek ways of balancing inequality and making the world a better place.
So taking off my mask and behaving authentically autistic by stopping people mid-flow to ask for clarification; or correcting someone who has made a mistake; or publicly laying on the floor rocking and crying because the noise, lights and smell of the room have become too unbearable; or distracting everyone else by moving about; or telling someone exactly what I think of them – these are all things that are genuinely “me”. They are my default settings in some ways – but should I take that mask off and show them? Or should I keep it all in and hide how the world is making me feel, keep the mask on and let my identity and self-esteem slowly erode away?
For me, the answer is “neither”.
We are social animals; our actions usually impact upon others. Our actions create responses in others and shape their attitude towards us and how we are subsequently treated – whether this is right or wrong means nothing. There are consequences for everything we do.
There will be times that I am blunt, I will say what I think, I will correct people or stop to them mid-flow in conversation. I will need to move about in order to regulate myself. I will experience sensory overwhelm in such a way that I am debilitated by it sometimes. As I said before, these are my default settings – I did not choose to have senses that work in this unfiltered way. I do not choose to take things literally. I am driven by seeking balance and find injustice so very “wrong” I cannot turn a blind eye to it. In fact, many of these so-called aitistic deficits that I was born with, are also my autistic strengths.
Can I unmask then without experiencing negative consequences?
I believe that everyone masks some of the time. It is what makes us human – and social. No one can be unfiltered, or impulsive, all the time and function well socially.
So, I choose not to mask my autism – I own it! And that means being proactive and taking responsibility for myself as well as others. Here are some examples of ways I am authentically autistic:
- If I know something is going to be difficult, I prepare. I don’t mask my autism to myself either! Going to town is tough so I plan short trips, I take headphones and my bottle of water. I keep scented nasal inhalers in my bag. I don’t keep pushing myself but take time out to regulate my senses and take stock of the situation. I am proactive so that the chance of me becoming overwhelmed is reduced.
- I make arrangements prior to needing adjustments wherever possible. I let someone know that if they are holding a meeting, I will need the agenda up front. I ensure people know that I prefer a text first if they wish to speak to me on the phone. Or if someone just calls, I don’t answer but ring back later when I feel comfortable rather than answering and becoming stressed. If I am entering a conversation where I am likely to need to ask questions, I’ll ask upfront how to do this best. “I’m much better at taking things in when they are written down, do you mind if I make notes please?” or “I tend to lose track if I need clarity, is it ok to interrupt to ask questions if I need to please?”.
- I am assertive. If I am asked to do something that will be difficult for me I will state my needs up front without needing to justify them endlessly, make excuses, or apologise for how I am: “Emma, would you like to come to a party on Friday?” “No thanks, I really don’t enjoy parties myself, but I hope you all have a lovely time, thanks for asking me”
- If I need to regulate myself, I will politely leave and go and do whatever I need to do, rather than trying to get through the situation silently whilst hiding my needs or disrupting everyone else. I will keep things to hand that help me – I may have things to fiddle with, to stroke, to crunch on, to drink. I’ll choose the chair that suits my needs best and I’ll sit near an exit and I’ll ask if there is noise or lighting that can be adjusted if need be.
- I am quite a private person, so I tend to state my needs with little explanation and add to that if necessary. I do not need to justify why I need things to be like they are. Sharing my diagnosis is occasionally helpful but frequently people don’t have a great deal of knowledge about autism and may even misunderstand it. If I am not in the mood to be their teacher, I don’t have to be! It is ok to say “I am not able to wait in this queue because of my disability, please can I go straight in?” I have frequently found that if I am assertive, people will respond more positively than if I bombard them with information about why I need something.
What really, really helps?
Like many autistic people, I have a life full of effort. Effort to fit in, or effort to hide how I really am. Effort to not offend people. Effort to understand how everything works.
Even my unmasking is full of effort. My unmasking means I own my autism and I am proud of who I am and what I have achieved. But, my autistic default settings, as I like to refer to them remain unchanged. I do not choose to be blunt in order to offend people – I am puzzled that some other people do not value honesty as much as I do. I do not ask questions to annoy people, but to understand them better. My need for peace and quiet is not done on purpose to be awkward. My logical way of thinking that is so useful in some situations may seem out of place when it comes to interpreting hidden meanings or reading between the lines – but I accept that many people prefer operating in this complicated, tricksy – dishonest I might even say – way.
I can’t really hide these fundamental facets of my personality. I don’t feel a need to apologise for them either. My autistic deficits (if you view autism in a medical way) are also my autistic strengths: my integrity, my eye for detail, my innovative ways of thinking, my passion and depth of knowledge.
All humans have strengths. All humans are imperfect. That is something that unites us – autistic or not.
So, when I do act authentically me – yet offend you, please remember this: I am probably doing my best. I am probably not being deliberately annoying or trying to point out your errors. I may have defaulted to the wrongful assumption that you see the world as I do. Please try and see the world as I do for a moment too.
I will take responsibility for myself and accept my social responsibilities. This means that I recognise that not everyone else experiences the world like I do, and my actions may be interpreted differently to how they were intended. It helps me when non-autistic people reciprocate and take my perspective and discover how I am perceiving the world. When this happens, they may realise that my lack of eye contact is about conserving my strength for concentrating on their spoken word, rather than becoming overwhelmed by the deluge of sensory information that comes from eye contact. Then it becomes less important to them as they understand that I am not being rude. Then our interaction becomes more positive.
I believe that autistic people compromise, and even deny their needs endlessly. Masking our autism means our needs don’t get heard or met. We constantly try to fit in with a world that may feel alien. My description of how my unmasking works demonstrates how important my sense of social responsibility is. Just because I don’t like hanging out with people for fun, doesn’t mean I don’t care about them. Perhaps if more people were willing to meet me halfway when it comes to communicating authentically, we would have more fun!
How do I like to be treated? Same as everyone else! With respect, equality, compassion, interest, and kindness. But I am autistic. I am disadvantaged just by existing in a neurotypically biased world. This blog isn’t about how and why I should be treated better – I’m a human being for goodness sake, I should not need to ask for human rights! Instead, I would like to invite you to consider the following analogy:
Imagine that I am not autistic (I am). Imagine that I am not British (I am). Imagine I am French…
I am still human and have the exact same human needs as every other person. I share many customs with other people – lots of similarities with fellow Europeans, noticeable differences with some parts of Asia for instance.
I look similar to lots of people – quite often my French-ness isn’t obvious until I speak. When I am chatting with other French people everything looks ‘normal’. When I am chatting to British people I can sort of fit in – English is a common language after all. When I am trying to chat to Russian people, I struggle, and I am obviously out of place. (My French-ness hasn’t suddenly ‘got worse’ or ‘more severe’ by the way!)
So, assuming I am French, and you are British, how do we communicate? We learn a bit of each other’s languages. We find out about each other’s customs so that instead of finding it weird that I kiss people on the cheek, whereas you shake hands to say hello, we understand and accept this – perhaps we even find it interesting and have a go ourselves!
We understand that we have different body language with different meanings, we accept that one of us is perhaps more reserved – or more demonstrative than the other. We take our time when having conversations to ensure we can process and translate the conversation in our heads, and we doublecheck our understanding. We certainly don’t assume I am stupid or slow just because I have to translate your words into my language to think about it, and then prepare my response back into your language too. And you don’t shout so that I understand better – no one is more able to converse in a foreign language just by slowing down their native tongue, doing some actions, and speaking louder – no matter how often it resorts this!
How do we view each other? Do you think I would be happier if I just acted more British and hid that I was French? Perhaps I could learn English off by heart and speak it fluently – but I’ll never lose my accent or stop thinking in French. It’s ok though, you won’t catch it from me! But will you keep encouraging me to try harder to be more British? Lose the accent so no one knows – it’s a bit embarrassing to have a foreign friend. Perhaps you’ll encourage me to hang out with other French people as they’ll understand me better, and I’ll be happier. Maybe we can argue about whether being French or being British is best, or how I ended up being born in France.
No…No one does any of that unless they are a total racist. So, what is so different about autism? How should we treat autistic people?
In the same ways we respectfully treat our French neighbours…
We learn each other’s languages and find out about each other’s customs. We don’t follow stereotypes about what all French people do – we recognise the diversity within each nationality. We invite each other along and don’t make a big deal out of our differences, but we make gentle accommodations like pointing out in advance things that could be tricky. We are genuinely interested in each other and we share and learn. We certainly never write a French phrase book or scientific article about what it is like being French without consulting someone who actually is French. We use bilingual signage where appropriate. We don’t blame the French person for being rubbish at English or tell them that just because they know how to order a drink or ask directions, they should be able to discuss the finer points of Shakespeare.
If I was treated as a human, a three-dimensional, complicated, complex, valid human being that is different in the same way a French person is different to a British person, my life would be much better.
“Non-vascular plants tend to be small, but some grow quite large”
That was one of the last pieces of information I remember hearing in a classroom. It also gave the kiss of death to my academic endeavours at that time.
I had wanted to study this particular ecology course for years and finally took the opportunity following redundancy to enrol on a course. It was mostly practical – hooray! It was topic based – even better! And it was my absolute favourite subject, and I already knew masses about it – I’d be surrounded by other interesting mature students and we’d spend loads of time outdoors in the field and minimal time indoors – what could possibly go wrong?
What went wrong was that my way of thinking, learning and understanding was completely incompatible with the course providers way of explaining, teaching and describing.
What would have helped me when the lecturer described non vascular plants, was an example, a diagram, a photo or something to get my head round so I understood what they meant.
What actually happened was this conversation inside my brain…
“NON-VASCULAR blah blah blah SMALL, SOME blah blah blah LARGE”
I started rooting around (pardon the pun!) in by memory bank for a seed of information (sorry!) that I could grasp hold of to help me clarify what the lecturer meant. Imagine the mental equivalent of searching in your laptop files for a folder named “non vascular plants” and the computer processor whizzing through every available file one by one to find the best match.
At that moment what I actually needed was to press pause and make the teacher stop while I searched for information. I don’t possess a speedy processor like a computer has, and that’s not how education works. You can’t put people on pause, it would disrupt them and everyone else. So I did the next best thing…
I took a deep breath, braced myself for looking stupid, and stuck my hand up. I tried to catch the teacher’s eye, but without having to make eye contact – not an easy task! Fortunately she noticed me and I asked “Can you give me an example of a non vascular plant please?”
And she said…”I’ll get on to that in a minute” and carried on describing the various attributes of non vascular plants:
- They don’t have special tissues for carrying food and water (xylem and phloem)
- They tend to be smaller than vascular plants
- They don’t have seeds
- They prefer water
So now several things were happening inside my head.
- A voice from my youth was telling me “See what you’ve done? What a stupid question. Everyone else knows apart from you. You need to sit still, everyone hates the person who asks questions. Even the teacher. See, she won’t even answer you”
- So I had a bit of a mental battle with that unpleasant voice, along the lines of “It’s fine to ask, you need an example so you can create a visual image in your head and get on with learning. Stop giving yourself grief. You are 46 not 6. You are not at school. You know this triggers you. Relax. You’ll do fine”
- I was aware that the teacher was still talking but I was actually too engrossed in my internal battle to know what she was saying.
- I was also aware of the fly buzzing (interesting) – the lights flickering (ouch!) – the pencil tapping (annoying) – the chair scraping (aaaahhh that HURTS!!!) – the breeze through the window (nice) – the bird outside (I wonder what it is and what it’s doing?) – the breathing of the woman next to me (creepy) – the minty breath of the man across from me (yuck, I hate kissing people who chew gum, it’s icky and sweet and minty cold – I hope I don’t have to kiss him – get a grip Emma, why would you have to kiss him?!) – keep your hand still Emma – DO NOT do that hand thing you do to calm yourself down – take a drink of water instead (you’ve overpoured it and it’s running down your chin stupid – don’t think about the horrible cold wetness) – the brightness of the whiteboard and the reflections on it (don’t even look!) – the people walking past (FFS don’t they know I’m trying to concentrate) – sit up straight ( that’s ‘A VERY IMPORTANT THING’ in education, the ability to sit on a chair properly) – when did I last pee? I hope I don’t need to go. Do I need to go? Goodness knows, but what if I do? (panic) – the ceiling tiles don’t match (why don’t they match?) – keep your hands out of sight Emma, for goodness sake don’t calm yourself down (they already know you are thick because you don’t know what “large” means – don’t let them see you are weird too) – the picture on the wall is crooked (why??!!!) – and the myriad of other things that were of absolutely equal importance to my brain at that moment – and always, always are.
- And I was still trying to work out what was meant by “Non vascular plants tend to be small, but some are quite large”. My brain was thinking…”Small like a tennis ball? Or an ant? Or something else? Empire state building large? Or an elephant? Surely not, what else is large, I wonder what it can be large like?”
- I am a visual thinker. When someone says a word, I create a picture in my head. That’s possibly why I am more comfortable in the world of science and tangible things rather than in the world of abstract ideas and fantasy. I can do abstract ideas, but I need to make them concrete somehow. That’s why I love analogies and sharing examples of how autism works in practice and what is going on undercover.
- I had no picture of a non vascular plant to use as a starting point. I had nothing to measure “small” and “large” against. Further describing the attributes of a non vascular plant added additional processing demands. Learning that a thing I cannot imagine anyway, has no seeds and no xylem or phloem is asking me to take an unknown and then asking me to take stuff away from it. My brain was ready to pop.
- And all this reminded me why me and education don’t work. And my self esteem plummeted.
So whilst I appreciated the teacher’s need to get on with the lecture, I was left floundering…and behind everyone else in the class. If she did go on to give an example of a non vascular plant, I missed it. My urgent attempts to block out all that unfiltered sensory information, soothe the tormented schoolchild in me who was busy reliving the trauma of her early educational experiences, and work out what a non vascular plant could actually look like, got in the way. In fact, it could well appear that I interrupt and then don’t bother to listen to the answer. In fact, I am sure I’ve heard teachers tell me exactly that!
So what could have helped?
Easy. A simple response to my request for an example: “think mosses, liverworts, low lying plants without roots and seeds, non-vascular plants tend to love water” would have been fine.
That would have given me enough to go on.
Or this could have helped if it was displayed on the Powerpoint presentation. Thinking visually doesn’t mean you need to give me a physical picture. It means you need to give me the information I need to create a picture for myself:
Or something like this may have helped me and would have been quicker to process than the above example:
Any of these three ways of giving me an example would have enabled my logical brain to work out how to define “small” and “large” and identify what was meant by non vascular plants. I would have known that the Empire State Building was a bit much because I could have applied my understanding of “oh, it’s something like a moss – of course, if it’s large it’s not likely to be tall because it is not rigid enough” etc etc
So why did I feel a bit thick?
Because everyone else “already understands” what large means in this context. So why don’t I?
I have an open mind, of universal proportions. It is unfiltered and massive and capable of zooming into the atomic level in order to understand something, and then zooming back out again and looking at it from every conceivable angle – plus a few inconceivable angles too! This is why I am renowned for “thinking outside the box”, talking utter nonsense, and coming up with some inspired ideas – and half the time I am not sure which is which. I am not constrained by convention or accepted hierarchies or preconceived ideas.
My world is not only big and unfiltered, it is fluid and shifting and changing all the time. My sensory processing works in such a way that my experiences of sensory information fluctuate. We all experience this – think how much louder a noise sounds when you are scared and alone at night. Or how everything looks brighter when you are happy. My brain needs much more, or much less sensory information to register the sensation than some people do anyway, and this is further affected by everything from my mood, to my health, to the type of environment I am in and how busy, bright, loud and smelly it is.
What I “know” about the world, does change from moment to moment because my reality is chaotic and ever shifting due to the way my sensory processing system works. I create order, predictability and systems to understand things and to anchor myself to. I learn facts off by heart. I match the unknown to the known in order to learn. It is completely feasible to me that “large” could mean elephant size or the Empire State building size.
I have no natural filters, to help me find the “correct” answer, so I use my own filters. They are called “taking things literally” and “logic”. I impose routines and structure to give me that order and predictability that is missing from my world. The more chaotic my world becomes, the more I rely on my filters.
When I don’t have enough information and apply logic or take things literally it can expose truths that others gloss over and miss – I notice things or patterns that are frequently overlooked by other people. It can also involve me appearing to misunderstand things. I may have made perfect sense of what I know – but if what I know is only part of the finer detail, and not the bigger picture, I could be completely on the wrong track.
I struggled through the rest of that day on the course, determined to prove I had what it takes… I didn’t. I had further struggles with following instructions – “go and gather some plant material” was followed by me sneakily watching what my classmates were doing and copying. I knew “plant material” didn’t mean a whole tree but WTF did it actually mean? The trouble with sneakily watching and copying, is it rarely goes undetected. In a school setting it can easily result in taunts of “look at her copying us, do you want to be our friend Emma?” followed by laughter and further mocking. Explaining my way out of that situation by telling my classmates in a completely honest and logical way “no thank you I don’t want to be your friend, I don’t even like you” does not actually result in appreciation of my honesty, or even relief that thank goodness the weird kid doesn’t want to be their friend. It further alienated me from my classmates and made teachers think I didn’t even want to try and fit in.
I got to the end of the first day of that weekend long course, ate my meal in the communal dining hall – further sensory and social nightmares – all whilst desperately trying to convince myself I could do it and I wasn’t a total failure. But I couldn’t do it. I went to bed and awoke at 2.30am and spent the next 4 hours crying and tormenting myself about how useless I felt.
I am sharing this glimpse into a few hours of my life to show how my brain processes things. The way I logically think and the way my sensory processing works. But what I really want people to realise is the impact of these things. I cannot help how I am. It is not a choice. I am not deliberately asking stupid questions, or not listening, or getting distracted.
“Trying harder” adds a further layer of pressure that alerts my senses to scan for danger and my brain to process the sensory information it is receiving in more extreme ways – everything gets even louder or even brighter – or I can no longer feel where my body is and what it is doing unless I look at it. My world becomes more chaotic and I need more structure. I lose my anchors and come adrift and I have to seek clarity and create order. I suddenly need to ask more questions, I become more literal, I need to do more of those things that that regulate me. I can risk the outcome and not do these things, or opt for self-preservation and mask these needs. The resultant masking is a temporary fix that leaves my needs unmet and chips away at my self-esteem and identity.
There is a living, breathing, beautiful human being behind every assumption we make about what autism is or isn’t. My face may lack expression, I may look bored or distracted and like nothing bothers or effects me. But look back at the sheer volume of processing that I am doing to understand a “simple” statement. Look at the additional things I am processing – all those sensory experiences that are clamouring for equal attention with each other. Reflect on how every single one of those sensory experiences has an associated thought, emotion or train of questions to additionally process. Think how complicated and painful and distracting and distressing that may feel, how hard I am trying to cope and fit in. Perhaps you know of autistic children that look like they are keeping it together at school and then come home and collapse from the sheer overwhelm? Consider just how overwhelming it actually IS for them. Feel humbled that they can take their mask off with you.
Do you know what would help in this situation when accessing education?
Autism awareness? Perhaps… A little bit maybe.
Autism training that teaches the traits of autism? Absolutely useless in this situation.
Acceptance? That would be nice – but actually you shouldn’t be accepting that a fellow human being is in this state of distress.
Kindness. Absolutely, but ONLY if you know what kindness means for me.
So what would help me most is for you to recognise that I am a fully human, three-dimensional person, with an inner life as complex as the next person’s. I am unique, I am not lesser, or somehow not taking it in, or unable to understand things. Every single human being is unique. I have explained my experience of learning and each of us will have our own unique preferences, strengths and needs. Adapt and respond to every individual. On a practical level, I need very, very simple adjustments:
- An adjustment of attitude. You need to accept that my world and your world could be very different. But each are totally and utterly valid. No amount of adjustments in the form of equipment, support or special adaptations will work if your attitude towards me doesn’t adjust. It’s a reasonable expectation – and a right.
- Start small. adjust the environment based on what everyone needs. Encourage people to sit where they are most comfortable. Near a window, facing a door, whatever.
- We all benefit from regulating our senses. Do we need all those lights? Can we get rid of some of the background noise? Reducing the amount I have to process with some of my senses gives me a better starting point for learning. Having the option to increase sensory input can help too – let me move when I need to. So how on earth do we balance everybody’s needs if we are all different? Remember we are whole people. Maybe I don’t like noise when I am working but you do. You like lots of light and I hate artificial lights. So I wear my headphones and you sit by the window. Autistic people are frequently great practical problem solvers. We can help each other. And as a whole person, I recognise that my senses do not work in isolation. If I cannot control the noise, I can regulate my other senses, it still helps. If I am autistic and have got as far as being sat in your class, I will undoubtedly be a resilient person with extensive experience in handling adversity and distress. Ask me about me.
- Please answer my questions. If someone is bold enough to ask, they clearly want to know. Do not assume that because it is not important to you, it may not be important to them. You may be enabling them to continue a train of thought that would otherwise derail.
- Allow students to photograph or record lectures. That way they can replay them or feel comfortable in distracting themselves or regulating themselves when they need to, without losing track.
- Recognise different learning styles. I absolutely must have information in the right order so I can build up a picture. Some students need to do things practically, others prefer listening. Recognise your own biases if you are a teacher. I stayed away from describing learning styles in depth in this blog, because it is more important to focus on each individual’s needs.
- Lack of understanding does not mean lack of intelligence. Ability in one area does not mean ability across the board. Difficulties in one area do not mean difficulties across the board.
- Ask people what they need. Ask in a way that is practical. If you say “what do you want?” It might sound inclusive and as if it is offering me choice, but how do I narrow down what the options are? The question is too big. Instead ask me which is preferable between option a and option b. Learn from the experts – the ones with lived experience.
- It can take me time to process things. I may have a question about something you said five minutes ago or five days ago. Build in time for this and make it perfectly acceptable to ask. It does not mean I am slow or not paying attention. Remember how much extra stuff I am processing just by being in that room. If you ask me something, give me time to process it. Don’t ask me again but in a different way because you assume I haven’t understood. You will double my processing, not reduce it.
- And remember that each of us has a life full of past experiences that will undoubtedly have played a part in how we feel today. Stepping into situations that highlight our struggles is a risky business. Respect that.
I haven’t been back in a classroom since. I left the course deeply disappointed. I was the child whose parents were told when they dropped 4 year old Emma off on her first day of school – already reading and writing – that she was destined for Oxbridge. It never happened. I have a photographic memory and love learning so sailed through my GCSE’s with no effort. Two attempts at A level courses and two attempts at a degree – the second attempt lasting less than an hour! None worked out for me. I found employment and worked my way into a successful professional career. I even completed a MA successfully via distance and work based learning. I am writing this blog to share some insights that may help people. I also need to process what all this means for me as I embark on my PhD research. Again by distance learning, but this time with me owning my autism and asking for support and understanding upfront. My research is about employment and neurodiversity. Unlike education, the world of work is a place I have largely thrived. But for many autistic people that is not the case. This is where I hope to use my positive experiences to change things for other people.