Max's shop of horrors

Warning: imagination testing site. Enter at own risk

Strengthened by Fire

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In metallurgy, there is a process called “tempering”, where materials like iron and steel are heat treated to increase their strength. Ironically, (sorry, couldn’t resist) this actually reduces the metal’s hardness, but increases its ductility, which is basically its flexibility under pressure.

The end result is metal that is actually stronger despite being less hard, because it is able to absorb stress that might shatter a harder but more brittle metal.

In this blog I tend to focus on the strengths, the benefits, and the joy of life on the spectrum; that’s just me, I’m a glass half full kinda guy. But that’s not to say it’s all rainbows and unicorns. (Which are real by the way, they’re just tubby, grey, and live in Africa) Autism can be challenging to say the least, and life on the spectrum is often very stressful.

But just as metal can be strengthened by heat, this stress can help build us into resilient, resourceful, and determined individuals. Whenever I’m feeling down, I like to remind myself of all that I’ve been through and overcome. Not only have these tough times made me who I am today, but the fact that I got through them is proof that I’m a strong person.

The heat of the forge may seem to weaken us at the time, but it can also make us stronger in the long run. It’s important to remember, however, that while life is the forge, we are the metalworker. We can harden our hearts and become rigid and inflexible, but as metallurgy teaches us, harder metals can actually be more brittle. If we temper ourselves to be both ductile and strong, we can handle anything life throws at us.

Stimulants and Stress

For a lot of people on the spectrum, myself included, the experience of autism can be described as “life with the contrast turned up”. The highs are like a tsunami of molten chocolate, the lows like skinny dipping in the Antarctic, and the transitions between like one of those amusement park rides that where you shoot up in the air then drop back down.

What I didn’t realize until relatively recently, though, was that something I was doing was making this emotional seesawing far more intense than it needed to be; my intake of sugar and caffeine.

Because I often felt sad or tired, I’d been trying to give myself a boost with unhealthy food and an excessive amount of coffee. Then, when I overhauled my diet in 2014, I noticed something; I was getting to sleep more easily, my panic attacks were less frequent and intense, and I was experiencing less stress in general. The things I’d been consuming to try to improve my mood had actually been making me feel worse.

Those of us on the spectrum are often susceptible to over-stimulation; as a result, chugging energy drinks can be like chucking petrol on a flame. It can easily become a vicious cycle; we feel down, so we consume sugar/caffeine, which makes us feel worse, which leads us consume more, and so on and so forth. I myself was stuck in this cycle for many years before becoming aware of it; I now place guidelines on my intake, and I feel significantly better as a result.

As always, I should point out that I am not a dietitian or a doctor, and this is all based solely on personal experience. I still drink coffee in moderation, and on occasion I’ll even treat myself to a bit of sucrose, I just know now to be mindful of its potential to cause stress. Life on the spectrum is already a roller coaster; there’s no need to grease the tracks!

Fright of Flight

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Ah, aeroplanes. We’ve all heard the statistics, that they’re one of the safest ways to travel, but somehow that doesn’t always reassure a brain that hasn’t changed significantly since the Pleistocene and considers being 10 kilometers up in the air about as safe as tickling a Sabre Toothed Tiger.

My first experience with air travel was when I flew to and from Japan as a 17/18 year old, and as I’ve detailed in a previous entry, that trip went about as smoothly as a square snowball rolled down the side of Mount Doom. I left so shell-shocked that for the next decade, I avoided flying like the plague.

Then, a few weeks ago, I was invited to speak at a conference on autism… in Tasmania. My plane ticket was paid for as part of the deal, and I really wanted to go, but at the same time, I was terrified. Painful memories of my experiences ten years prior resurfaced with a vengeance. But at the same time, I wanted to face and overcome this fear that I’d been running from for so long.

Buoyed by a flood of support and encouragement from my friends, family, and colleagues, I decided to grit my teeth and give it a go. In the days and hours leading my up to my flight, my anxiety writhed inside me like a live octopus. But then, when I finally got on the plane, and took off, it detached and fell away, left behind on the tarmac. For ten years I’d built up flying to be this horrific thing, but when I actually did it, the glass tiger my mind had fashioned shattered against the hard rock of reality.

And I’m so glad I didn’t let my fears stop me, because I really enjoyed Tasmania. Hobart is a beautiful city, the conference went well, and I met some really lovely people. But perhaps more importantly, I broke free of shackles that had bound me to the earth my entire adult life. From here on out, the sky is no longer the limit.

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Re-examining Independence

The other day, someone asked me for my thoughts regarding disability and independence. My first impulse was to say that while I can’t speak for anyone else, I myself have managed to live independently despite experiencing sometimes debilitating anxiety.

But then my train of thought veered off on a tangent, laying fresh tracks down in front of it as it went, like in Wallace & Gromit: The Wrong Trousers.

As social animals, almost all human beings are dependent on one another on some level. An adult who lives alone and supports themselves financially, for example, is still dependent on the farmers who grow their food, the workers who maintain the pipes that supply their water, etcetera. Independence isn’t a binary thing that we either are or are not, but a matter of degree.

Disability is a similarly nuanced concept. All individuals have their own challenges, some are simply more pronounced than others. There are many people who face far more hardship than I do, and others who face far less.

“Dependent” is often treated as a dirty word, as something to be ashamed of. Personally, I don’t think it should be. While those who face great difficulties in life may sometimes need more support, this can be seen as a natural extension of the mutual dependency we all share.

Many disabled people manage to live with a degree of independence close or equal to their more able peers. But for those who cannot, I don’t think there need be any shame in dependence on others, any more than we need feel ashamed that somebody else bakes our bread or works at the power station that generates our electricity.

Our dependence on each other is part of what makes us a community, a society, and above all, human.

Autism and Coffee

It should come as no surprise to any regular reader of my work that I’m a devoted enthusiast of that quasi-magical beverage derived from the seeds of the berries of the Coffea plant. I was savouring my daily dose the other day, (cheap and black, like my sense of humour) when it occurred to me; coffee is a lot like autism.

See, there’s a lot of focus on the challenges of being autistic, which shouldn’t be ignored of course, but virtually never have I seen the flipside touched upon; the pleasure of it.

You know that joyous rush of energy and excitement when a good coffee kicks in? Well, that’s what autism feels like to me when I think of a new idea for a story, or find a new book or documentary on one of my special interests, or when said interests come up in conversation. It surges through my body like hot molten chocolate; I want to dance, to flap my hands, to run in circles, cos I’m just so happy. My brain lights up like a Christmas tree, and it feels freaking fantastic.

It’s this aspect of my autism, this glorious frothy energy that allows me to power through a day’s worth of work in half an hour, or focus intensely on a single task for hours on end. I’ve talked before about how useful these abilities are as far as work and contributing to society go, but I neglected to mention that, perhaps just as importantly, they’re a source of immense enjoyment.

This is why I don’t see myself as “suffering from” autism. Sure, just like coffee, it can sometimes leave me feeling overstimulated and anxious, but when I think about how much fun I get out of it, I consider it a blessing, not a curse.

 

Resisting Relapse

First of all, a head’s up: this entry will be discussing self-harm, so if that’s not something you want to read about, stop now. That being said, I have endeavored approach the subject in a constructive manner, with a focus on coping strategies and recovery. I hope I’ve succeeded in this regard.

It’s been five and a half years since the last time I cut myself. I assumed that with time, the urges would go away, but the truth is, they haven’t. Months may pass without the thought of relapse crossing my mind, but every now and then, when I’m feeling lonely, unwanted, or embarrassed, it resurfaces with terrifying ferocity.

In those moments, the urge can be so overwhelming that it feels like I can’t breathe. Like I physically need it as much as I need oxygen. Resisting it is hard. Damn hard.

Now, I have no official training as any kind of counsellor, psychologist, or anything like that. This is simply an account of what has worked for me.

First of all, I’ve found that, like panic attacks, these episodes tend to be limited in duration. A lot of the time, if I can just hold out for fifteen minutes or so, the urge subsides.

In fact, a lot of the same strategies I’ve found useful in combating anxiety attacks are effective here as well; strenuous exercise, for example. If I go for a jog around the block or do a set of push-ups, it almost always helps me feel better. Meditation can also be helpful; if you don’t know how to do this, there are plenty of videos on YouTube that can walk you through it.

Another trick I use is that I have a word document where I keep a record of nice things people have said to/about me. When I’m feeling bad about myself, I open it up and re-read them.

Now, none of these things are a magic bullet, but as a sort of emotional first aid, I’ve found them valuable tools for keeping relapse at bay.

Perhaps most importantly, I like to remind myself that every day without relapsing is a victory that nobody can take away from me. In five and a half years, that’s nearly four thousand victories. We can’t always erase our demons entirely, but we still give them a kick in the arse and send them packing if they dare show their face. And after five and a half years, my kicking leg has grown strong.

A Helping Hand

There are times when life seems to shrink, like we’re a frog alone in a pond that’s drying up.

We can leave the pond, and fight our way across dry land under the scathing sun to try to find something better. And maybe we manage to save ourselves this way, through immense effort and hardship.

But what if someone saw the frog in the shrinking pool, and carried them a dozen meters to a larger one? Such a distance would be a terrible struggle for the frog, but for someone to carry them that far takes practically no effort at all.

Likewise, when a person is struggling, it can be extremely difficult for them to work through it on their own, while the relatively minimal effort it takes for someone else to ask them how they’re doing can make a huge difference.

It’s incredibly important to check in with our friends regularly, even if they seem to be doing fine; a lot of people will put on a brave face and try to hide their difficulties. Something as simple as messaging someone to say hi and have a chat can literally save a life.

While this can be true of anyone, it’s especially important in regards to people on the spectrum. A Swedish study from 2015 found that autistics without a cognitive disability had a suicide rate nine times higher than the general population. (http://bjp.rcpsych.org/content/208/3/232)

That’s a terrible statistic, and highlights just how important it is that we support each other and provide a safety net of kindness and inclusion for those among us who are facing tough times.

Taking Shape

This past year has been a transformative stage in my life. It’s been a time of many breakthroughs, but perhaps the most significant for me is that my volunteer work in autism advocacy has developed into a paid job.

In March, I started working as a classroom mentor for students on the spectrum at a local high school. This is something I never thought I would be capable of doing, but I absolutely loved it, and I’ve already signed on to work at an additional school next year.

My work as a speaker has also taken off in a big way. Among my many gigs this year, I got to talk at the Victorian Autism Conference, at a forum on Autism and Employment with Amaze, and at Young Social Pioneers 2016. It still boggles my mind that people would pay money to hear me talk, but hey, I’m not complaining!

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the Autistic Teens group I was recruited to help run in February; I’ve met so many amazing people there, and while I would’ve been happy to continue doing it for free, that too will become a paid position next year.

Now that I write all this down, I feel like I’m bragging, but I’m really just over the moon to finally have paid work, and for that work to be so awesome that it doesn’t even really feel like work at all.

My dream of having a full time career in autism advocacy is taking shape, and I can’t wait to see what’s next in 2017.

A Change of Pace

Aloha lovely people! First of all, I just want to thank you all from the bottom of my blood pump for your continued support. Producing a new blog entry every Tuesday for almost three years has been challenging to say the least, and the main thing that’s kept me going is having such an awesome and appreciative audience.

Alas, after so long, I fear I am reaching the point of creative burnout. For the last few months I’ve been really struggling to come up with new entries once a week, and as we move into 2017, I’ll be stepping up my commitments at work.

As a result, while I will continue to post new blog entries, from 2017 onwards I will no longer be doing so on a regular weekly basis. Rather, I will simply post whenever I find the time, energy, and a good enough idea.

It will be difficult to let go of my weekly routine, as I know my OCD will make me feel like I am somehow ruining three years of work by doing so, but in the long run I think I will be better off, as posting every Tuesday has begun to feel like a stressful obligation.

I just thought I should give you all a heads up, in case in seemed like I was abandoning this blog, which I assure you I’m not. The Shop of Horrors will remain open, just with different business hours.

“Mildness”, Farts, and Mirror Masks

“Your autism must be very mild.” Oh boy, if I had a dollar for every time I heard that one, I’d be sleeping on a pile of gold like Smaug, and living in an air conditioned chocolate palace with a swimming pool full of coffee.

I’m not offended by these comments, mind you. It’s not meant maliciously, so I don’t take it as such. After all, it’s true that a lot of people on the spectrum face significantly more challenges than I do.

On the other hand though, I feel I should point out that my “mildness” is, at least partially, an act. When I’m out in public, I wear a mirror mask, which reflects the social norms of those around me. If you saw me in the privacy of my own home, “mild” might not be the phrase that comes to mind; I flap my hands, I make funny noises, I do a lot of the things more typically associated with the word “autism”.

If I appear “mild”, it’s because I’m expending a tremendous amount of effort to appear as such. My autistic characteristics may not be apparent, but that’s not because I don’t have them; rather, I’m holding them in for the time being, kind of like when you’re on a date and you really need to let out a nice fart, but you know it’ll spoil the mood.

I’m not ashamed of my autism. I mean, I’m not ashamed of the fact that I fart either. They’re both natural parts of who I am, and restraining myself from indulging them in public doesn’t change that.