Sending you all my best wishes…here is a blog I authored for NeuroClastic
I contracted Covid-19 for the first time in April 2020. This required a hospital visit which led to my interest in developing resources to support other Autistic people and their families as part of my professional work as a director of Autism Wellbeing CIC.
I received my two doses of the Covid vaccine during the summer of 2021 and was unfortunate to become infected with Covid-19 for a second time in October 2021. My symptoms of early illness did not present in the expected way.
My most recent Covid-19 infection initially resulted in the common symptom of complete loss of my sense of taste and smell. I have regained about 5% of my olfactory and gustatory processing ability six weeks on from infection.
My professional career has been within social care – developing and delivering services to people who are labelled as having complex needs. My own experience of Covid-19 enabled me to reflect upon some of the potential impacts this could have on other Autistic people, and in particular those who use non-verbal communication or are considered to have “challenging behaviour”.
Interoception – knowing I am ill:
Prior to both infections with Covid-19 I noticed a complete change in my demeanour. I did not feel ill. I did not feel hot or cold – although a thermometer indicated I had a fever. I experienced the sudden onset of severe depression-like symptoms. Fortunately, I am aware of how my interoceptive processing experiences manifest. Interoception is the sense we use to process internal body signals such as pain, hunger, or needing the toilet – and to notice our emotions and the changes they are creating in our bodies (racing heart could mean excitement or anger for instance).
The severity of the depression-like symptoms frequently overshadows my attempts to seek medical help for my physical illness. When I seek medical intervention at these times, my physical illness is typically overlooked, and my mental health is scrutinised – despite me articulately and accurately informing medics that I believe I am coming down with a physical illness. This overshadowing of my physical illness due to putting greater emphasis on the risk management or identification of my depression-like symptoms may prolong my illness as my physical health problems are not treated. It invalidates my experiences and may even create barriers to me seeking support or communicating with medics.
When I consider people I have supported professionally, that are labelled as having “challenging behaviour”, I recognise occasions where perhaps they too may have experienced a sudden change in mood due to a physical illness. Within my work I have observed people exhibiting behaviours such as shouting; biting themselves or others; or running away. These behaviours were considered to be caused by the person trying to communicate that something was wrong and as practitioners we would consider whether this could be something external such as too much noise or the person not wanting an activity to end, for example; or something internal such as toothache or illness.
At times, “challenging behaviour” was interpreted by some practitioners as having an element of intent or wilfulness on the part of the Autistic person. It was sometimes considered that the person didn’t know how to communicate “properly” using speech or sign language or had poor social skills – and therefore chose to demonstrate their pain/distress/urge to leave, by “acting out” and using their behaviour in a planned or possibly even manipulative way to communicate with others.
Where no cause or trigger was obvious to the (usually non-autistic) observer, it was common for the observer to conclude that the person was over-reacting or hyper-responding in some way, and subsequently needed to learn more appropriate coping strategies. My own symptoms of sudden severe depression could look like emotional instability to an observer, and they may well consider me unable to cope with being ill. They may misconstrue that my mood symptoms are a response to my physical illness and not the way that illness manifests for me.
Sensory processing is the process by which the nervous system receives, organises, and understands sensory information. All of us experience the world through our senses and our brains process this information.
Autistic people frequently process sensory information differently to non-autistic people. Our sense receptors (eyes, ears, taste buds and so on) may work perfectly well but there may be differences in the way our brain processes the sensory information. This may include struggling to process too much sensory information or filter out unnecessary information; experiencing heightened, muted, or distorted sensory signals; delays in processing; or perception in one or more senses shutting down, resulting in an incomplete picture of what is happening within the body.
Each of us has a unique sensory profile. But sensory processing does not happen in isolation. Our sensory experiences change and can appear inconsistent to others who do not recognise the dynamic and context specific nature of sensory processing.
Our senses play an essential role in keeping us safe. For example, if food smells rancid, we know not to eat it, and if we feel unstable on a structure, we climb down from it. Sensory information tells us how to act in and adapt to the environment. Sensory processing also plays a role in regulation, activating us to evade a threat or calming us so that we feel safe.
Positive and negative aspects of my loss of taste and smell:
- My overall amount of sensory processing was dramatically reduced. This had a calming and regulating effect upon me and reduced distress in some situations. e.g. the lack of diesel fumes and burger van smells made visits to my local town more bearable.
- Food never tasted “off”. This reduced the anxiety I typically experience when food tastes different to usual. I used the best before date to identify whether something was safe to eat.
- Food tasted of nothing – so texture became more intense. I realised that I could never eat broccoli without the “reward” of the taste of it to compensate for the texture!
- I have practiced mindfulness for decades and found that eating mindfully was the best way to cope with my sudden loss of taste. I would put the food on my tongue and notice it without judgment. At first, the only food I could identify in my mouth was mango, due to the distinctive fizz. I am now aware of spices, bitterness, and the saltiness of marmite.
- I recognised how I rely on my sense of smell when cooking. It lets me know when to check if the toast needs turning over under the grill and if food is getting close to being cooked. Without the ability to smell my food cooking, I had to focus on following safe cooking procedures and use a timer or else risk burning food.
- Smell keeps you safe – I no longer felt disgust at cleaning up pet poo, even if I accidentally got some on me! I didn’t automatically recoil from mess or take extra care using bleach or filling the car with petrol as there was no aroma from it and it could have been water as far as I was concerned.
- I can no longer smell the weather and therefore cannot easily identify whether I should wear a jumper or coat. My sense of smell is more effective than my awareness of temperature when processing the environment.
- I use my sense of smell to recognise people. Their sudden lack of aroma made them as difficult to recognise as a radical new haircut or significant weight change would. This created a sense of unease within me.
- I am concerned that I may smell bad, or my home may smell bad.
- I am aware that I would not smell burning so have become extra vigilant about checking things are switched off at night. I recognise that this vigilance could become anxiety, perseveration, and obsession, so I have adopted a sensible routine to manage my safety concerns without escalating them.
My sensory experiences following Covid-19 infection have reminded me how our senses work together and not individually.
The role of our senses in keeping us safe is significant. Risk taking may not always be due to recklessness, impulsivity, or lack of understanding of risks – it could occur due to sensory differences.
Autistic people may experience the world in a disorganised or chaotic way because our senses work so differently. My typical need for routine and structure reflects this. Since Covid-19 infection, I am aware that I am relying even more than usual on timers, reminders, and routines in order to compensate for my loss of certain senses. To an observer, Covid-19 may appear to have made me “more” Autistic. It hasn’t; but my “normal for me” world has changed, and I am needing to find security, certainty, and predictability in this new world of minimal smell and taste.
If I was supporting an Autistic person who was not able to articulate their experiences, and they had recently tested positive for Covid-19, I would consider how their sensory processing may have been affected. It would not surprise me if some Autistic people needed to increasingly rely on their other senses to make sense of the world if their sense of smell and taste reduced. They may touch things more to identify them using their tactile sense. They may stim more in order to get extra vestibular and proprioceptive input. I’d expect to see more tasting and smelling of items and people; and possibly increased frustration at not being able to recognise them by these methods.
I would also expect to see an increase in repetitive questioning by some Autistic people. I too have a felt a need to check and recheck information in order to seek out familiarity and predictability. I have found satisfaction in the predictable to-and-fro of scripted or familiar conversations and exchanges. Those reliable quotes from films and songs that stay the same each time you hear them! Similarly, I would not be surprised to see people stuck in a loop of thinking, or stimming, or behaving in a particular way – these tendencies are often exacerbated by change and unpredictability and can provide predictability and a self-soothing function.
Moving forwards, I have prepared myself for a potential return of my sense of taste and smell. I am aware that just like the effects of the various lockdowns ending; a sudden increase of sensory information may be too much for my brain to process and result in survival responses of fight, flight or freeze. I plan to stick with my mindful approach to noticing what my senses are picking up, with no judgment and a curiosity that will hopefully enable me to reflect and share my insights.
I encourage practitioners to consider sensory processing experiences when supporting Autistic people whose behaviour suddenly changes from what is usual for them, and perhaps check whether Covid-19 infection and symptoms related to loss of smell and taste may be the cause.
It was wonderful to spend some time with Chloe discussing Sensory Trauma. Why not catch our interview on YouTube
Here is a blog I wrote that NeuroClastic recently published.
There is a fantastic breadth of autistic experience available on the Internet. Neuroclastic.com is a great source of insights. Why not check their website out, and have a read of my latest blog while you are there.
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.
My 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”, I decided to educate him myself. And we are both thriving because of it.
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.
“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.
My son started playing an online game called Clash of Clans, about two years ago. He had his first mobile phone and he and a few mates downloaded it.
We had a good talk about online safety and set about learning how to “chat” with other players. In fact I googled a list of text speak and abbreviations so we could decipher all the BRBR’s, CoC’s, and TIA’s.
But the chatting bit wasn’t for us and he convinced me to download the game too and join his clan. I thought it was a good idea so I could a) keep an eye on his safety and b) ‘get down with the kids’ – LOL – and find out what the attraction was with gaming.
Then there was c). Unintentionally I found I quite enjoyed playing, and it provided lots of opportunities for mother and teenage son chats about life, the universe and everything.
The game involves starting from scratch with a base that you can gradually build up with troops of different types, and defenses and resources. You take part in battles and as you win more loot and gain more experience you can upgrade your base and all its various archers, giants, wizards and dragons. You win more money and increase your magical abilities. You can spend your resources however you wish and shape your base accordingly.
And being a game, once you have accumulated enough experience and resources, you can level up. And with that comes tougher opponents to battle and higher stakes.
It’s very much like life. My son mocks the players he refers to as “rushed”. The ones who use real life money to upgrade their weapons while they are still novices and learning their battle skills. They are easy opponents to beat. Their bases look flashy with all the newest kit, yet weak and simple to penetrate and win an easy victory.
It’s a strategy game too – just like life. You can run at your enemy willy nilly, throwing your best bombs and shooting your best arrows and sometimes you’ll taste victory. Or you can plan and strategise and choose your battles and sneak in and win that way – or do all that right and step on a hidden bomb and lose!
There are no sure fire ways to win every battle. Preparation is important, but no amount of preplanning and picking your best troops will predict your next battle. My son and I often discuss strategy and technique, and the various analogies our game playing has with life. As a respected level 3 Master who reached those impressive heights with no cheat codes or spending of actual cash, I am worth listening to!
As an autistic person I frequently like to do things in the same way each time. It provides me with much needed predictability in this chaotic world I find myself in. It means I am wonderfully reliable, solid and consistent. It also means I can be metaphorically shooting my level one arrows when I’m fighting level six battles.
I still have my favourite old attacks and defenses now I’ve leveled up, but I have to ensure I adapt them to a more sophisticated opponent. If I keep on using my winning strategies from my early playing days now I’m in the Master league, I’ll look amateurish and rarely come out on top.
But I like my winning strategies from my early days. Life was simpler and enemies easier to predict. I want to keep using those winning moves. They served me well. They got me where I am today. Without them I would not be here now. But they don’t win me many battles anymore.
I’ve levelled up.
I need to learn new skills and different moves.
My son and I talk about how as autistic people this can feel tough. It’s like starting again from scratch each time we level up in life. Much harder than a computer game.
But with it comes new techniques, more resources, fancier strategies and greater opportunities.
We may be prone to keep on doing things the same way regardless. Sometimes I’m asked why I do things in such complicated ways, or why I always do things the way I do even if it’s not that effective.
Partly its the old message of “try harder” taken far too literally. Partly it is because it works – or rather it worked. But life sometimes moves on whilst I’m still doing the same old thing.
Sometimes I level up in life and don’t upgrade my skills in line with my progress. Mostly it is because it takes lots of conscious effort to work things out. There is always a logical reason for why we do things. Why change that? Doing things the same way is predictable and introduces a comforting, familiar pattern into an unpredictable and ever changing world.
We should be as proud of our life achievements as we are of our gaming ones. Finding that the old techniques no longer work could be a sign we’ve gone up a level. New opportunities are open to us and new resources are at our fingertips. It’s worth trying out some new moves.