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5 minute read Autism sensory trauma

Sensory Trauma

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.

The answer:

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!  

Aaaargh – It’s got a face!!! A vacuum cleaner that wants eye contact!!!

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

Categories
Autism identity

Unmasking, personal growth and reaching my potential as an autistic person.

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’.

Speckled wood butterfly camouflaged on woodland floor

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.

But…

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!

Categories
Autism wellbeing

Autism and Self-Care

In the same way that we show kindness and compassion towards others, it is important that we show ourselves kindness and compassion too.

During times of stress, or when we are feeling fragile, struggling, or overwhelmed, it can be easy to give ourselves a hard time, or tell ourselves to toughen up. I often feel that society tells us time and time again to “just try harder”. And time and time again, I keep doing more of that thing that wasn’t working for me – but even more so! I don’t have enough hours in the day to fit everything in, so I stay up later. I don’t have enough energy to even take a shower, but I’ll sort out washing my son’s mountain bike. I keep going, holding on to the false belief that it will somehow make me stronger and better able to cope.

However, resilience isn’t built by doing the thing that hurts you even more so that you get used to it! All that does is teach you to put up with harmful things you should actually be avoiding.

Like many autistic people, I experience sensory information like sound and smells in a different way to many typical people. Some autistic people have difficulties processing how we feel – our sense of interoception may be muted, or alternatively, over-responsive and we can feel bodily sensations (hunger, needing the toilet etc.) and emotions in a less or more intense way than other people do.

I am an ‘under-feeler’. I often don’t know what it is I feel – I’m sure there is something going on but I can’t say what or where. On an off day, if I am lucky I have a general sense of ‘meh-ness’ or that life is ‘probably not ok’. When other sensory input is bombarding me, my interoception weakens further.

Many of my senses are affected in a slightly bizarre looking way. My visual processing can go haywire and I lose chunks of my vision because it’s too noisy. Or something very upsetting happens, and rather than feel sad, I feel seasick when I change my walking pace or direction. The issue is with my neurology, my brain is processing sensory information differently. It is not an issue with any of my sense organs.

All of us experience the world through our senses. This includes how we see, hear, smell, taste and touch the world – as well as how we know where our bodies are and how they are feeling. To function at our best, we need to be in what is sometimes referred to as the “just right state”. This means that our brains and nervous systems can receive, organise and understand sensory input and respond to it in a regulated way.

We all need different amounts of input at different times. Many autistic people need more sensory information or less sensory information than other people typically do in order to become, or stay regulated. Emotional and sensory regulation is about doing what we need to do to get the balance just right. For me, this is the fundamental principle of self-care. Unless I’m in an ok place to start with, there is no point attempting any more sophisticated self-care techniques. The fantastic thing is most of what we can do to regulate ourselves is very straightforward.

If we feel hyped-up or over-stimulated, we may need to calm ourselves. If we are feeling lethargic, flat, or floppy, we may need to do something energising. Regulating ourselves is part of our daily lives for most people and often we don’t even notice we are doing it. If I need to do something a bit nerve wracking I’ll instinctively take a deep breath first. If I need to unwind after a busy day, it feels natural to run a warm bath with some of my favourite scented bath oils. When I want a pick me up, I’ll enjoy the stimulating effect of inhaling the aroma of my mid-morning cup of coffee.

We are also quite natural at co-regulation too. This is when we help each other regulate ourselves. As parents we are often attuned to our children’s needs – I may recognise my son’s distress before he does and act in ways that helps him to regulate himself – whether that’s a hug, or a warm drink, or a wrestle.

I firmly believe that self-care is a disposition rather than a technique or approach that can be got out and used when required. It’s an attitude and a way of living. However, I haven’t always taken good care of myself. I learned the hard way and I struggled for years and used all sorts of unhelpful and harmful ways to regulate myself and cope with the inevitable stresses and strains of life.

As an autistic person I experience the sensory processing issues I described above. I also experience some of the other common experiences that autistic people have:

  • My world feels chaotic and confusing as my processing of it fluctuates daily; depending on the environment, my health, the weather, my mood and how much I have going on.
  • I seek consistency and order so that I have something solid to anchor myself to. Frequently I find the neurotypically biased world we live in doesn’t understand or offer me this stability, so I have to create my own.
  • I seek clarity through using logic and by taking things literally – I expect my honesty to be replicated in others – sadly that may not be the case!
  • My brain is always consciously working out what to do. It can be tricky to pack any more processing into it. It’s easier to rely on learned routines, set pieces, and organisation.
  • My body is always waiting for the next bombardment of sensory pain. If I shut it off I have to stop relating to everyone and everything. If I stay alert, I risk getting hurt.
  • Filters and hierarchies – what are they! I am open-minded, inquisitive and fascinated by everything – but dare not ask in case it’s the “wrong” question.
  • I spend a great deal of time masking. This means I have more opportunities, I’m taken more seriously, I look more normal and so get treated better. It also means I don’t get my needs met because no one knows my struggles. No one answers my questions. I make my body behave unnaturally in order to not upset people. Basically, I encourage my dysregulated state rather than using self-care. When people tell me to just be myself, I feel relieved – then realise they often mean “be yourself – but not like that!”
  • I get immense joy and healing through my senses and feel blessed that I experience things other people may miss.
  • I can focus on my interests with incredible intensity and commitment.
  • I see patterns, trends and details others overlook or filter out.
  • So long as I am allowed to experience it this way, my world is big, fascinating, ever-changing, and always full of wonder.

I frequently feel that I miss the things that many neurotypical people intuitively understand. I have always felt that way. I also feel that autistic people intuitively know what they need to do to regulate themselves, cope with the ups and downs of life and engage with the world. These things we intuitively know may not look very neurotypical. They may even be misunderstood, pitied or mocked. Perhaps they aren’t even considered self-care, simply because they don’t always look like a neurotypical person’s self-care. But my interests, and my sensory connections to myself and the wider world are my self-care. I have learned to play to my strengths. My autistic strengths.

At times of increased demand, an autistic person’s routines, structure, and self-care and regulation can include an increased need for order, timetables, questioning, and repetitive behaviours. This is not a sign of regression; not coping; or ‘becoming more autistic’. It is a similar response to everyone else’s and is driven by the autistic person intuitively understanding what will help them cope. Most people do more of whatever it is they do to cope in times of need. Whether that is writing more lists, biting their nails, hyper-focusing on a hobby, bouncing up and down, rearranging their CD collection in order – or whatever.

Fostering an attitude of kindness towards ourselves is good for our wellbeing. It can become a good habit if we practice it regularly. I had to learn how to make a habit of self-care. My default used to be self-hate. It’s not surprising when you have grown up in a world that is biased towards neurotypical people; that has increased exponentially in terms of the sensory information all around us every day; that doesn’t believe you, or thinks you are ill, disordered, broken or wrong when you try and explain how it genuinely is for you. A world that assumes you are deliberately doing what you do just to annoy everyone else. Surely an intelligent person like Emma can’t be that stupid.

But I intuitively knew I needed to self-soothe. I needed to find peace and calm. I needed to direct my intense energies somewhere. And for many years it was hit and miss. I accidentally stumbled across some good ways of achieving this and some dangerous ways.

It was not natural for me to shift towards self-care. I tried at various points in my life to follow particular methods, models and techniques. I frequently hear people say how meditation just doesn’t work for them; or yoga is a non-starter; or they don’t have time to do anything creative and wouldn’t know where to begin anyway. I’m one of those people. I am highly organised in some ways but completely unable to plan or remember to do any special self-care activities as well.

So I don’t. Well, I tell a lie, I sort of don’t!

Behind a waterfall

I needed to change my attitude towards myself.

Simple…

“Actually Emma, you’re alright really. Don’t take those negative thoughts so literally. Look at your achievements, you’re fab!” But I knew I wasn’t fab. If anyone is going to win a battle of thoughts and words against me, it’s me! Trying to convince myself logically that I was worthy of compassion didn’t work. I learned there was no point arguing with myself. Fortunately, compassion is not actually a feeling. It’s what you do and how you treat people.

But I also knew that I am a practical problem solver. I am not one who is overcome by emotions, and I have never been able to force my emotions anyway. So I stopped fighting myself. It reminded me of when I lived up this really rough track in the middle of nowhere. Friends who attacked the track in their car and tried to conquer it could end up knocking the silencer off their exhaust! I would set out at a slow speed and let the car find the path of least resistance. I’d gently hold the steering wheel but let the car find it’s own way around the potholes and over the bumps. I’d reach the top slowly and surely – and intact.

I didn’t make changing my mindset any part of my journey. Instead, I focused on making a new habit. This was the time where I had to be really organised and plan things with my self-care – it felt clunky and awkward at times. I felt painfully self-conscious and had to keep telling myself to back off when I taunted myself about trying to be compassionate towards myself. I remembered some tips from my music playing. Nigel Kennedy, the violinist says he slows a new piece of music right down so he can play it. And then he repeats it at least 40 times at slow speed. Even when he knows it off by heart and wants to speed up, he keeps creating his muscle memory through accurate repetition. Once it is firmly embedded, he can begin to increase the tempo.

Our brains are not a muscle. But they do have neuroplasticity and can create new pathways. So I practiced. I wrote a list of things to do when I felt bad. I kept it on my phone. They were simple things that would regulate my senses like doing some washing up; stretching an elastic strap; pushing against the wall; listening to music through headphones; eating some crunchy crisps or nuts. They sound ridiculously pointless. How can pushing against the wall stop me from feeling dreadful? But the key was to do them before I felt dreadful – and practice them throughout the day. They are not fixes, they are ways to feel regulated. Once I am regulated, my body slows down it’s search for hidden danger and things begin to gain their true sense of proportion again. Everything becomes more manageable.

I also practice my mindfulness techniques. I have used mindfulness for decades, I occasionally attend classes or formal sessions in order to refresh my knowledge. This isn’t essential, but works for me. Mostly I make sure I do things in a mindful way – once again, it’s a disposition rather than an activity. I may eat part of my meal mindfully – I’ll notice what the food feels like in my mouth, and how it tastes. I’ll put my knife and fork down in-between mouthfuls of food. There’s no way I could eat a whole meal in this way – just by attempting it I’d be putting myself under so much pressure, I’d ‘fail’. So I don’t set myself goals. I just check in with myself several times a day and have a mindful moment. No pressure, no goals, if it doesn’t feel right, that’s fine. Success and failure don’t form part of the experience. If I go a whole day without doing anything mindfully then so what. When I do things mindfully I have moments of peace. Moments of living outside of my busy brain. It really helps. This way of treating myself is compassionate and works well for my personality. I have a tendency to really get into the things I’m into. I’m either no good at something, or I’m an expert! I am either disinterested, or I’m its biggest fan. Self-care can be planned, it can be structured, but it can’t be forced. If it becomes an obsession, it stops being self-care.

How not to do self-care

But I like being into stuff! I quite like obsessing. I certainly love delving as deep as I can into a topic and immersing myself in new knowledge. That’s fine. I see it as one of my autistic strengths. My ability to hyper-focus in times of stress is like a laser beam of positivity piercing the fog surrounding my brain. So I do hyper-focus, but in times of known or anticipated stress like the current pandemic, I have a mantra of ‘wide not deep’ and ‘only positive’. I create myself windows of intense focusing and try not to fixate on only one topic. I have always loved nature and always will. It will always be my escape, my asylum from the urban world. I have absolutely disappeared off down some wonderful rabbit holes in times of stress. I have also focused on other topics too and I have actively distracted myself from immersing myself in struggles that will sadden me or that I cannot change. I may not have contributed to the solution but I haven’t added to the problem either. I sometimes need to be a pacifist and not join some of the wars our world is waging. I need to conserve my energy for my own battles, I need to strategise and conserve my strength for the battles I cannot avoid. I feel lucky that I have an ability to focus and enquire and explore subjects with objectivity and open-mindedness. My self-care involves using my interests as a distraction, to feel good, to achieve and to lose myself. I make sure I use that immense mental energy in a positive way.

I have written a blog about sensory joy and healing. I describe how it feels to experience intensely positive sensory experiences.

https://undercoverautism.org/2020/08/03/sensory-joy-and-healing/

I make sure I prioritise those activities that bring my joy. For me that means walking in the woods; listening to music; having time with no noises from people; time with no questions; mindful moments where I just notice without analysing or questioning. It’s about reducing some of the cognitive and sensory demands.

I may notice myself being unkind towards myself – perhaps I’m berating myself yet again for how crap I am at life. Or perhaps I’m pushing and pushing in the hope things will go right, just because I want them to and I’m putting all this effort in. Sometimes I challenge myself, but mostly I shift my focus. I no longer need my list I practiced with. All that practicing has paid off. I am finding that mostly when things start feeling bad, or going wrong, or however I want to put it, I reach for compassion as readily as I used to reach for a personal insult towards myself. Of course I still feel bad – but I feel less bad about feeling bad. I can feel utterly fed up – but in a safer way than before. The world has not started treating me any better sadly. But I have stopped handing it so many stones to throw at me.

There are other simple techniques I use. These too were part of my practicing and now come more naturally. I read positive things people have said to me in messages. I bake a cake. I avoid interacting with people unless I am fairly certain they will not add to my stress. I do something helpful and kind towards others – it’s quite difficult to treat yourself badly when your mindset is on being kind to others. Even if I think I am the biggest loser on the planet, if I start doing something positive or helpful for other people, my self-loathing shifts.

I find positive physical things to do. Proprioceptive input is massively regulating for me. If I have that horrible sensation in my body that I can’t shift, that is crying out for pain, and that just won’t be soothed, then I mindfully and gently do something that gives me a massive hit of body awareness. Sometimes I think what I want is a hug, but I don’t always want the intensity of another person that close to me. Controlled movements are key. Pushing against the wall; deep massage with an electronic massager; my weighted blanket – all these help me to feel soothed and comforted. I can also create an awareness of my body through moving and enjoying the sensation. Whether that is repeating something that feels good, stroking something that brings me comfort, or even dancing around the kitchen disgracefully when no one is watching. I can locate myself back in this unpredictable, shape-shifting, sensory nightmare of a body again. I can begin to realise it is me and that’s ok.

Sometimes when it all gets too much I switch off to protect myself from further onslaught. It used to be hard to switch back on. I choose to stay engaged more of the time now, but that requires proactive self-care to keep myself regulated.

Here are some suggestions for how you might like to consider making self-care a way of doing things for yourself…

• If you feel yourself becoming tense, angry or stressed, take your time, back off from pushing yourself, take a few minutes to chill

• Accept that sometimes things feel tough and this is not your fault

• Use your senses to notice what you can see, feel, smell, and hear in this moment

• Do something that is fun – dance with your kids, make something, listen to music

• Regulate your senses and emotions so you are more able to cope

• Consider the language you are using towards yourself in your thoughts and words

• Treat yourself in the way you treat your most loved ones

• Make a list of helpful strategies you can go to when you notice you are being unkind to yourself

  • Do something kind for someone else
  • Find one good thing that has happened this year, this week perhaps, or even today. It you feel like it, find another, and another. Let that hyper-focusing mind seek out some positive memories and thoughts.

Categories
5 minute read Autism

Sensory Joy and Healing

My dog has just come in and jumped up on the bed to see me – I can smell the weather on her. It feels exciting to be able to tell that autumn is approaching, just by smelling my dog!

We take the same walk every day, down the track and across the field to the little piece of woodland that looks out over the meadows to the distant river and castle. I’ve walked this route for 20 years – either with Blaze, or with my previous dogs. I never get bored of it though, and I take such delight in how it is always a different experience. A good, solid, natural, different experience each time; a difference that is meant to be. Rather than a man-made, enforced, upsetting of the natural order, type of different experience, that makes people think I’m typically autistic and “don’t like change”.

I notice the tiny insects; I hear the far away birds; I smell which animals have passed by. This means I have a whole world open to me that others miss – it is like a great, exciting secret between me and the Universe. It feels special and precious, and an honour. Sometimes my interest and curiosity are stimulated, and I observe and study and wonder at the natural world. Sometimes I just let my senses take it in and I don’t engage my thinking brain at all. The power of my senses gives me respite from the endless mental processing I have to do in order to function the rest of the time.

The physical power of music moves me. I can reset my dysregulated body with just one, single, repeated noise that has the power to rebalance me. I can listen to an orchestral piece and take in the enormity of it, like an overwhelming wall of sound – or I can follow the different instruments, interweaving and passing the melodies and harmonies back and for between them. No tune ever sounds the same twice. Music creates in me something that can’t be captured in words. I see musical chords in colour – and when I see these colours in nature, I hear them in my soul. 

My senses work differently to many people’s. I can feel pain and fear from sights and sounds that others find mundane or inconsequential. This can be overwhelming – and other people frequently don’t notice the extent of my suffering. But I can also become overwhelmed by the joy and beauty I discover through my senses. Sometimes I secretly smile inside because I know that I may look calm, bored, or even detached to a casual observer; but in my soul I am full of joy, I am experiencing psychedelic colours; orgasmic noise; and  fragrances that cleanse and purge my body and mind.

I can heal my painful and distressing sensory experiences.

I can listen to music; I can walk; I can smell lavender to calm me, or sandalwood to help me think.

I can crunch on pickled onion crisps and allow the astringent flavour to cut through my brain fog and overwhelm – and reconnect me to the world again.

I can listen to the same glissando and allow it to lift my mood, exactly in tune with the rising pitch. 

I can move my body so that I know it is me and I am in control and there is something predictable and safe that I have agency over. It makes me be “me” again – I fit back in to the world that so often overwhelms and alienates me.

I am privileged to have a sensory system that can bring me such joy and healing.

Categories
5 minute read Autism identity

Body Image and Autism: a personal reflection…

Is your body an ok place to be?

Does it feel safe?

Are you even sure it is you in there?

Our body image is not just affected by the messages we receive from other people, but by our health, life experiences, upbringing, and personal values – and many more things besides.

Body Image has been a topic of concern for many years. We are bombarded with unrealistic images of unobtainable bodies whenever we switch on the television, view advertisements, or access social media.  

The image that we form consists of several factors:

  1. How we perceive our body. How thin, tall, fit, or attractive we are. This may be accurate or inaccurate.
  2. How we feel about our body. Do we like how it is and how it works?
  3. What we think about it. Perhaps we think we should be fitter or healthier, or maybe we’re just right?
  4. The way we treat our bodies. How we care for ourselves, whether we exercise, harm ourselves intentionally or unintentionally, our relationship with eating.

Autistic people may experience all the same type of things in life that affect their typically developing peers, and they will be subject to the same media portrayals of ‘perfection’’. In fact, autistic people may be more likely to experience adverse life experiences such as relationships breaking down; employment and school issues; and poorer health outcomes – simply because their particular neurology puts them at a disadvantage. The way each of us perceives, thinks about, feels towards, and treats our body is complex and made up of a multitude of different factors.

I believe there are some additional factors to consider for autistic people. We may be more likely to experience ‘face blindness’ and have difficulties recognising individuals. We often have strengths in focusing intently on specific topics of interest, we may experience perseveration and a reliance on routines and rituals that help us organise our worlds. This could be responsible for some autistic individuals becoming excessively focused on diet, calorie counts, or exercise regimes. It may make breaking habits that are harmful towards our bodies more difficult too. An autistic person’s sensory processing may impact on their body image as well.

From a sensory perspective, I’ll explore my own experiences and reflect on how they have affected my life.

Proprioception

This has a significant effect on my relationship with my body. My muted sense of where the various parts of my body are in relation to each other means I am frequently misjudging doorways and bruising my arms in the process; I trip over my own feet; and I lift and throw with totally the wrong amount of force required. I find negotiating stairs and escalators very tricky, and if I can’t see my feet, I may as well not bother.

These type of proprioceptive experiences are well documented in accounts from autistic people. They undoubtedly impact on my self-esteem. I am not graceful, or elegant; ever. I don’t dance in public, I’m rubbish at sport, and even walking across a room requires the same kind of internal self talk one would say out loud to a blinfolded person navigating the same route! What I think and feel about my body is never particularly positive. My perception of where my body starts and ends is muted too. I recently cleared out my wardrobe and found a coat that I had bought. It was way too big. In fact, it had always been too big and my husband recounted how I have always bought clothes of the wrong size.

The image I have in my head of my size is not accurate. Not just in the fairly typical way many of us look back at old photos of when we were younger and slimmer, and wish we were as “fat” as we thought we were back then. But in a very genuine way where I have no idea whether I will fit through gaps between cars in car parks, or be able to choose which clothes size to try on in a shop. It is not just a self-esteem issue where I exagerate my weight, but a fundamental difference in how my senses work. I have no idea what size I am – and all those other factors like peer pressure, the media, my health and relationships play into an already wobbly body image.

Interoception

Knowing how I feel inside, and which emotions I am experiencing, or what my body is telling me I need to do – eat, rest, go to the toilet, and so on – these sensations are frequently muted too. I don’t know if I like you, I’m not sure if I even like me half the time either!  

Until recently, when I looked in the mirror, or at a photograph, I had no strong sense that the image was of myself. I remember as a child thinking deeply about what makes people separate from each other. I must have been around seven years old (because I remember the exact spot in the exact street where this ‘revelation’ hit me) and it struck me that I was everyone else and everyone else was me. I cannot put it into words accurately, but it was an incredibly powerful experience. When I reflect on it, I still can’t quite capture what it was that I had discovered, but I know it is something to do with interoception and identity. I had incredibly clear ideas about who I was – I always did, but they were logical, thought-based, and completely detached from any feeling of who I was. I could have been anyone – where did Emma start and end?

This year I taught myself how to recognise myself. I had already begun a process of reflecting on photographs and noticing in a very mindful way that they were of me. I also built up to the point where I could see myself on camera for the inevitable conference calls the Covid-19 pandemic has forced us to  partake in. It was a painstakingly slow process, but I can now watch myself in a short film. Prior to this, I was filled with dread, horror and nausea whenever I saw myself. I could not connect in any way with the image in front of me and I found it terryfying that a stranger was saying my thoughts out loud, or was wearing my clothes.

I have embarked on a process of learning about my interoception. I need to take it slowly. Recognising my emotions and bodily functions as my own, feels as terrifying as when I recognised my outer body as my own too. On both occasions I experienced a massive sense  of overwhelm in the days and weeks after my sensory renaissance. A mixture of novel delight, fear, and wonder. Mixed with an almost painful sense of self-awareness. It felt important to gently nurture this and not push myself too hard.

My other senses play an important part in creating my body image too. All of us experience the world through our senses. When acting ‘normal for me’, my brain processes this sensory information in muted or intense ways, compared to typically developing people. When I have additional sensory, social, or cognitive demands to process, my sensory processing can become even more extreme. This means that my world feels inconsistent, unpredictable, and disordered.

The way my brain processes the visual information about how I look varies from day to day. Some days I can smell myself strongly – particularly if I have been unwell or terribly upset. I give off a distinctive chemical body odour. I can frequently hear my heartbeat and the blood rushing through my body. My sense of touch is hypersensitive, and I flinch at a light touch. This makes me upset because it appears like I am rejecting the very people I wish to seek comfort from. All of these factors influence how I perceive my body and how others perceive me. This impacts on how I am treated and how I respond to others too.

No reflection on body image would be complete without discussing food and eating. My gustatory processing works in such a way that I have very particular needs when it comes to flavours, textures, and combinations of foods. I have written about autism and food elsewhere, but in brief, I tend to prefer certain colours of food. I lack the imagination to think up original meals and tend to opt for familiar foods. My sense of taste fluctuates, and I can find particular flavours are so extremely unpleasant my body reacts as if I have been given poison!

My need for routine and familiarity (in order to calm my chaotic world) can result in restricted diets. My anxiety and sensory processing can encourage me to avoid mealtimes. As a teenager, my poor executive skills led to me being disorganised and eating quite a limited diet. This resulted in weight loss and poor health. My energy levels frequently soared then crashed in response to my unhealthy eating patterns. This probably had an effect on my emotions and self-esteem too.

Each of us will experience a complicated mix of factors all interplaying to help influence our body image. Our internal and external body awareness will give us a ‘sense’ of our bodies, and our thoughts, beliefs, and feelings about this will play a part too.

As autistic people we may experience additional influences on our bodies – in the form of our atypical sensory processing, and our need for routine, ritual, and repetition. We may intuitively know how to regulate our senses and emotions too. This may be in uniquely autistic ways. Many autistic people find repetitive movements, sounds, visual images, and other sensory input is fantastic for helping with focus, relaxation, stress relief, and joy. These activities can bring a sense of peace and predictability to our bodies and make them feel ‘safe’ and ‘connected’ to our whole self. This is certainly my experience anyway. Unfortunately, these activities may be seen as inappropriate, or a subject for teasing, scorn, or punishment.

Imagine living in a body that feels clumsily out of your control; that shifts its shape from day to day in front of your eyes; that reacts physiologically to the ebb and flow of a restricted diet and rigid exercise plan; and recoils  uncontrollably from flavours or touch.

Go back to my opening questions. Is that body a place that feels safe to you? Is it an ok place to be?  When what you ‘know’ doesn’t match what you ‘feel’, because you feel nothing but know everything – are you sure it is even you in there?

Is it surprising that so many autistic people are diagnosed with eating disorders, or self-harm, or are vulnerable to abuse? How do you even consent to another person entering the space of your body when you don’t know where that starts and stops?

Categories
Autism wellbeing Wildlife

Making Sense of Nature…

“Where’s the best place round here to see badgers?”

“I saw this bird, a bit like a sparrow but different, any ideas?”

“What sort of the poo do you think this is?”

I am frequently asked questions like these, and I’m absolutely delighted that when people have a wildlife-based query, they may think of me as someone who could help.

My knowledge doesn’t just come from having a good memory, and it certainly wasn’t taught to me in school. My passion for the natural world is lifelong and developed from a childhood spent reading – and walking about, noticing things.

I grew up in the days before we could conduct research on the internet, and I spent many hours poring over encyclopaedias, and also reading lots of fiction which seemed to include more descriptions of the specific species of plant and tree than many children’s books do these days.

I have always been someone who enjoys my own company and as a girl I would walk or cycle around the country lanes, sand dunes and beaches in my neighbourhood. I’d horrify my parents by disappearing off for hours on my bike to Brean Down, one of the Mendip Hills jutting out into the Bristol Channel near Weston-Super-Mare. My propensity for tripping over, falling off my bike, or otherwise ending up in some sort of scrape was well-known, and Brean Down was a steep climb with sheer cliffside drops into the sea, and was riddled with rabbit holes, just ripe for twisting an ankle in!

I’d sometimes cycle there at dawn or dusk and dodge the feral goats which stood intimidating tourists as they ascended the steps to the 100m summit of the limestone promontory. And then I’d secrete myself away and keep very still. The Down is a site of special scientific interest (SSSI) and has rare flora like the white rock rose. It’s also a great spot for watching peregrine falcons, kestrels and ravens. But the animals I wanted to see were the rabbits. They were incredibly common and if you sat very still and just waited in the crepuscular light, you would soon find yourself surrounded by bunnies. It always felt an utter privilege to be able to sit near them and a great use of my special ability of being able to blend into the background without being noticed.

This rabbit photo was taken in Gelli Aur Country park back in 2008. There has been a significant decline in rabbit numbers across the county of Carmarthenshire in recent years.

As well as an ability to silently disappear when I need to, I have a remarkable sensory processing system. Like many autistic people, my sense organs see, hear, and smell in a fairly average way. But my brain processes that sensory information quite differently. This means that some of my senses work in a way that is quite muted and requires lots of input to register a sensation, whereas other senses need hardly any information at all to register what is happening. This fluctuates and can become more extreme when I am under stress, worried or having to process lots of information (sensory or otherwise).

An example of where one of my senses may often be muted (or hyposensitive) is in my  proprioception – the sense that tells us where the various parts of our body are in space (close your eyes and stick your arms in the air – wave them about – whether your arms crash into each other or not is down to your proprioception). My sense of proprioception is responsible for many of my accidents when I trip over my own feet, misjudge a step, or bump into a doorframe.

On the other hand, my senses may by heightened at times (hypersensitive) – and this too has pros and cons. I can find the noise of a door banging closed, incredibly loud, to the point of it making me jump with fright and my ears hurt. But I can also hear the wasp chomping on the wooden frame of my living room window while it gathers material to mix with its saliva to help build its papery nest.

As well as having particularly keen senses, another trait of my autism is that I can’t filter out so-called ‘unnecessary’ information. I sense everything with equal intensity and importance. This can make me appear ‘lost’, confused or slow when I am in a new environment as I am taking absolutely everything in and trying to consciously work out which bits I should or shouldn’t be focusing on. It makes me a fantastic spotter of wildlife though! I will be the person who notices the Speckled Wood butterfly camouflaged on the woodland floor. My brain will not be fooled into thinking those patterns on the insect’s wings are part of the leafy detritus it is hiding against. My olfactory processing is so sophisticated I can tell whether the repugnant smell of rotting corpse is dead badger, dead deer, or simply a Stinkhorn mushroom.

Not everyone has a sensory processing system that works like mine does, but we can all ensure we take more notice of what is around us when we are out and about, and tune into our sensory experiences.

I have practiced Mindfulness for many years. It comes naturally to me, as I have always been someone who notices things.  Being Mindful means, you make a special effort to notice what’s happening in the present moment (in your mind, body and surroundings) – without judging anything. It has roots in Buddhism and meditation and there is good scientific evidence to prove its benefits. You don’t have to be spiritual, or have any particular beliefs, to try it. Mindfulness also sits well with me because my inability to filter things means I tend to be quite open-minded and non-judgmental anyway. I find Mindfulness particularly valuable because it reminds me to take a break from all the classifying and categorising and naming of the natural world, and just be in that moment, noticing it with my senses. Many people find practising Mindfulness is very good for their wellbeing. You can make time to meditate, or simply engage in parts of your normal daily routine in a mindful way.

For people starting out with a hobby like bird watching, or who want to develop more awareness and knowledge of the natural world, I would recommend taking a Mindful approach and just get out there, walk, and notice things. Don’t think about whether you recognise plants or animals, or if you can name them or know what they are. Nature can be enjoyed without any of these things. Try using each of your senses to notice what is happening around you.

Humans are currently said to have eight senses. The five we learned at school – smell, taste, touch, sight, and hearing. Vestibular – the sense of how gravity effects our body (our balance and awareness of spinning and jumping etc). Proprioception – knowing where the various parts of our body are in relation to each other. And finally, Interoception – the sense of knowing how we feel internally (our emotions and bodily functions like feeling hungry, tired or needing the toilet).

Interestingly, other animals have additional senses, and humans share the physiology that enable some of these senses too. Magnetoreception helps migrating birds find their way using the earth’s magnetic field. Thermoreception enables animals to detect heat and forms part of the infrared sensing systems found in some snakes and in vampire bats. Electroreception is well known in some sharks and other fish.

https://www.the-scientist.com/features/sensory-biology-around-the-animal-kingdom-32941

Here are some ways you may like to notice nature using your senses. I believe that with practice people can get more attuned to using their senses and it gives such an added layer of appreciation of our natural world:

Vision – stand still and notice how many different species you can see. Don’t worry about recognising them. You may be surprised at how many different living creatures you are sharing your space with at any given time.

Smell – notice a smell and move about until you can find the source of it, notice where it gets stronger or weaker. If you find something really smelly, like honeysuckle or even fox poo, focus on the aroma and then notice how far away from the source you can get while still smelling it.

Hearing – pause and notice how many different sounds there are. Let yourself notice each one. There may be sounds in the foreground like your breathing or footsteps, as well as sounds further away like birdsong, or a nearby road. Notice any background noise like the wind or water.

Taste – if you are confident at safely identifying wild food, then enjoy a blackberry or other fruit. Otherwise, practice with fruit and veg in your garden.

Touch – feel how cold the water in a stream is. Notice how things that look similar, may feel different. Find white clover and red clover in a field. Stroke the stalks of each and notice how one is hairy and one is smooth – you will forever be able to impress others with your knowledge of clover identification even when there are no coloured flowers to give the answer away!

Vestibular – close your eyes and notice whether you can sense if you are at sea level or much higher up.

Proprioception – bring your attention (without looking) to various parts of your body and see if you can notice where they are. Let the feel of the ground under your feet and the air against your skin help you notice where the respective parts of your body are. Realise you are part of the natural world.

Interoception – notice how you feel when you are in the natural world. Does it bring you joy, curiosity, peace?

Not only does following a technique like Mindfulness help us relax and connect with nature by disconnecting with the stresses and strains of our busy, daily lives, it helps us recognise how much is going on all around us all of the time. Once we start recognising this, it is more likely we will notice those elusive badgers, otters or whatever else we hope to spot. I have genuinely seen people walk past the most incredible creatures because they have been so focused on their phone, or their conversation, or lost in their own thoughts.

As well as practicing noticing things, its worth studying and learning all you can too. I bought my very first nature book whilst on a caravan holiday as a six or seven year-old. I remember going into the book shop in Williton, on the edge of the Quantock Hills and using my holiday pocket money to buy a copy of the Usborne Spotter’s Guide to Animals, Tracks and Signs. This is my favourite Spotter’s Guide because it opened so many doors for me. It wasn’t just a simple identification guide that helped name the species I was lucky enough to spot, it taught me the craft of getting up close with nature by understanding it.

Here are some of my favourite pages:

Gaining knowledge of how animals live, as well as what they look like, increases your chances of spotting them. Habitat, diet, and behaviour are all important parts of this. Understanding these helps identify animals and plants too. It increases the likelihood of seeing them when out and about. Consider my trip to Brean Down to watch my beloved rabbits. I knew that they would be out at dawn and dusk – I understood their behaviour. I knew there would be a warren on the isolated headland – I understood their preferred habitat. There was plenty of grass for them to eat – diet. Rabbit poo is decidedly easy too spot and correctly identify. My rabbit spotting trips are an obvious example of using knowledge to increase your chances of seeing a wild animal, but the principle is the same for other animals too. Though it provides no guarantee of a sighting!

Otters are a favourite animal of mine, but have frequently eluded me, despite my extensive knowledge. I now live within walking distance of otters and I’ve been out before dawn, I’ve set my camera trap up, I’ve even photographed their footprints, and smelt them. But my only local sighting was a chance encounter in a pond, rather than in the river where I know they live.

These tips that I’ve given about studying animals can act as a useful checklist for ensuring correct identification too. Sometimes we may spot a creature or plant that we are unfamiliar with. It is very easy for wishful thinking or past knowledge to affect our judgment when trying to identify it. My tip is to jot down exactly what you see. This is where another of the advantages of my autism comes in. Sometimes autistic people are labelled as great with the finer details but not good at seeing the bigger picture. Personally, I would disagree with this. I am very good at seeing the bigger picture – but I make it up out of all the tiny bits. This takes time and if you are after a quick answer before I’ve processed all the individual pieces into an overall scene, then you may wrongly assume I haven’t seen the bigger picture at all. My ability to appreciate every aspect of the world without judgment also comes into play – that lack of ability to filter information I described earlier. Autistic people are often “bottom-up thinkers”. The  American scientist, Temple Grandin describes:

“I’m good at trawling through the Internet through vast amounts of journal articles and then pick out what are the really important things. I then synthesize all of this resource down into one short paragraph… That’s something that I’m good at doing… I’m a bottom-up thinker—I take the details and put them together.” 

https://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2017/07/05/research-shows-three-distinct-thought-styles-in-people-with-autism/#1d73aac1221e

Suppose you see a bird that you can’t name. Very often people will tell me they have seen a brown bird that was probably a type of sparrow. They hand me the bigger picture information, and this is usually followed by a time consuming and tricky process of me asking lots of questions about things they haven’t noticed. Whereas, a person who describes small details accurately, helps me identify the bird much quicker, even when there are key bits of information missing. A member of a Facebook wildlife group I set up, reported seeing a bird she didn’t recognise – and with only a handful of very specific details I could identify it instantly, show her a picture and have the id confirmed. She described it as thus: Cornish coast, size and shape of a tit, black head and wings, white collar and under wings and a reddish underside. It was in July. I pieced these bits of information together and knew what it was straight away.

Stonechat

I used the visual information and then checked off whether the following were likely: habitat – coast, and time of year – summer, location – South West England.

Checking the likelihood is always important – a Golden eagle in the skies above Wales is almost undoubtedly a buzzard.

A cuckoo seen in the winter is probably a sparrowhawk, like this one that took a blackbird down in my garden back in the winter of 2010. The cuckoo is a brood parasite that uses its resemblance to a sparrowhawk to frighten away the parent birds when it is hoping to lay its eggs in their nest in the spring.

When birds look very similar, like the curlew and whimbrel, you can use your knowledge and senses to help with id. If you listen, whimbrels make a rapid tittering of very short whistles, whereas a curlew’s call has a much more ringing tone and the male in displaying flight in spring has an almost liquid sounding song that crescendos into a bubbling trill. UK based whimbrels only breed in Northern Scotland and is only seen elsewhere in the country as a passage migrant in spring and autumn. It can take off and fly from a standing start, whereas a curlew will take a run at it. Although side by side, the beak length is a giveaway, it is unlikely you will ever have the luxury of seeing that, so understanding how they behave helps.

Curlew (from RSPB website)
Whimbrel (from RSPB website)

Of course, we must always be careful of how we interpret things and remember that all sorts of creatures can turn up in odd places – like the Tregaron golden eagle, or the bearded vulture currently roosting in the English Peak District. Vagrant, escapee, albino, and hybrid animals are frequently spotted. Whilst this can feel exciting for some bird watchers or nature spotters, the outcome is rarely positive for the animal – a raccoon dog (tanuki) was destroyed in Carmarthenshire only last week and I still feel distress at the hunt killing an albino stag in Somerset where I grew up.

https://www.facebook.com/Cambrian-Mountains-Eagle-Watch-1018718254978738/?ref=page_internal

On a lighter note, Bill Oddie tells a story about identifying a bird, that reminds me that even when using common sense and a bottom-up approach, you may still be surprised: Bill’s friend works for the RSPB and received a telephone call from a lady asking for help identifying a bird. He gleaned information about the bird’s buff colouring, and the bit of black and a bit of red on its head. This bird had been feeding at her bird table. The RSPB chap considered the information, matched it to the most likely suspects, and confidently told the lady it was a goldfinch. But she was not in agreement at all! He asked her to describe what the bird was doing, and she explained that it was stood by the bird table pecking at seed. He enquired whether it was able to reach up and get the seed, and the lady informed him that this large, heron shaped bird was actually stood next to the bird table and was leaning down pecking at the food. The bird was not a goldfinch – it was a crane!

Its not just the behaviour and appearance of the creatures and plants that we see that can help us identify them, the relationship between species is significant too. Take the stinkhorn mushroom and badgers for instance. I explore their relationship in another blog: https://offdowntherabbithole.org/2020/01/26/badgers-and-the-devils-fungus/

When I smell a stinkhorn, I look out for signs of a badger sett or other badger activity like a latrine as the two species are frequently found near each other. If I am on the Ceredigion coast looking out to sea for dolphins, I’ll scan the skies for feeding seabirds. These may indicate a shoal of fish and dolphins could be close behind them. I was listening to a dunnock outside the doctors’ surgery this week. This small, brown and grey bird had a most beautiful song that suddenly turned into a short staccato cheep-cheep-cheep. This type of noise is an alarm call used by lots of different small birds. I knew it wasn’t me that had alarmed it, we were both well aware of each other and keeping a safe distance.  So I looked to the sky, and lo and behold, a buzzard had started to circle and soar above the carpark.

The signs that animals use a local area may not be obvious, but if you keep noticing things with all your senses, then it is surprising what you may find. Here are some photos from my walks…

Lots of broken empty snail shells indicate this is somewhere a bird like a thrush or blackbird could come to smash open snails.
Lots of feathers on a log like this indicate a bird of prey comes here to pluck whatever it has caught to eat. This is in woodland so it is probably a sparrowhawk.
I knew where a fox lived so set my trail camera up. Capturing a still photo of it catching a bird in its mouth was a stroke of luck.

I recommend finding a local wildlife patch that you can visit and get to know at different times of the day; in different weathers; and across the seasons. If you use all your senses to notice your environment, I guarantee you will never ever get bored of what you find because no two visits will be the same. Take photos; learn what the plants are and have an educated guess at which butterflies and birds they may attract and see if you’re right! Learn all you can and enjoy going off down those internet rabbit holes researching whatever takes your fancy. As for equipment, buy the best you can afford. But remember, equipment is no substitute for noticing and learning. I deliberately leave my phone, binoculars and camera at home for at least one of my daily walks. I realised once when I felt disappointed because I didn’t have a camera to record something, that I was beginning to digress from what it is about the natural world that brings me such pleasure. Similarly, I do not need to name or classify every species I come across – I take an awesome pleasure in knowing that for that moment, it is just me noticing whatever it is, and that makes that moment special and never to be repeated.

Get out there and have some moments!

This is the first of my blogs to be featured in both my wildlife and my autism blogs. If you’d like to check out my other blog, please click below…

http://www.offdowntherabbithole.org