Max's shop of horrors

Warning: imagination testing site. Enter at own risk

What Autism feels like

Life on the spectrum is like a triple espresso. Like a fiery curry. Like a pizza with the lot.

It’s like watching a movie at the cinema from the front row, like showering in the dark, like driving a hundred kilometers an hour with the top down.

It’s like surfing when the sea is wild, like kayaking through rapids, like sun, rain, hail and lightning all in the same afternoon.

It’s getting up every day and venturing out into a world of vibrant chaos, where indescribable joy and immeasurable terror clash and fracture into a kaleidoscope of thought and feeling.

And I wouldn’t have my life any other way.

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The Perks of Autism

That rush of energy, like your veins are roller coasters and your endorphins are screaming with joy.

That focus, like your brain is a crystalline microscope.

That sensitivity, like every cell in your body in a neuron of the universe, wired into the music of existence.

Serial vs Parallel Processing

Ever feel like your brain has too many tabs open at once? And then, like an overheated laptop, it crashes and takes half an hour to reboot? Have you ever considered that maybe, you could be a serial processor?

In computing, serial processing basically refers to performing tasks one at a time, while doing them in parallel means working on multiple tasks simultaneously. Some processors are very fast at doing things serially, others are better at doing them in parallel. People tend to be much the same.

Personally, I take to multitasking like a stegosaurus to figure skating. And that’s okay; I may not be able to juggle five tasks at once, but if tackle them one at a time, I get by just fine.

The challenging part is that we live in a world where parallel processing is the norm. For years I thought I was scatterbrained and lazy because I kept trying to multitask when that wasn’t what my brain is best at. I’d get overwhelmed thinking about all the things I had to get done, and it took me many years to work out that the solution was to break things down into a series of manageable bite-sized chunks.

Many of us on the spectrum are serial processors. We can bring an intense focus to bear on a singular task, and do that one thing brilliantly. We just have to learn to approach things in a way that best harnesses this processing power. A Formula 1 racing car for example is very fast, but you won’t get the best results driving it in peak hour traffic.

So if you’re one of those people who, like me, get stressed out trying to handle multiple tasks at once, try approaching things in series rather than in parallel; separate your workload into small steps, and do them one by one. You might be surprised at how much a difference it makes.

They’re right there

This is one of those posts where I feel like I should preface things with a disclaimer, lest I catch more flak than a low flying Zeppelin over North Korea. This blog entry is not meant as an attack on the parents of spectrum kids; rather, it’s friendly advice from somebody on the spectrum about a different way of handling certain situations.

In my job, I frequently meet kids on the spectrum alongside their parents, teachers, aides, etc. And one thing that sticks out to me is that very often, the adults introducing and discussing the child will do so almost as if the kid isn’t there.

The adults shake hands and say hi. Rarely is the child greeted. The adults then talk about the child; rarely is the child invited to join in the conversation or speak for themselves. In fact, the adults often behave as if the child cannot even hear or understand them. (Pro tip: Never assume that a person on the spectrum, even if they are non-verbal, can’t comprehend what is said around them)

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This bothers me a little. As a kid, I didn’t like it when adults spoke for me, or didn’t include me in conversations that involved me. It made me feel left out, and like they didn’t think I was capable of keeping up. Conversely, when adults did include me in the conversation, that was a big confidence boost, because it felt like an acknowledgement by the grownups that I was worthy to be treated as their equal.

Personally, whenever I meet a kid alongside their parent/teacher/aide, I make a point of saying G’day to the them, introducing myself, and asking how they are doing. And if I want to know what their interests are, I’ll ask them directly rather than their adult guardian. If their responses make it clear they’d rather not socially engage at the moment, then I’ll back off and give them some space, but I feel like it’s always worth reaching out and giving them the option, so that they feel valued.

I mean think about it; would we treat an adult this way? Talk about them in front of them like they’re not there? Kids are people too, and they deserve no less respect than adults.

Inclusion is the sunshine from which we photosynthesize our sense of belonging. And when does a plant need sunshine more than when it’s growing?

 

Kids These Days

“The children of today have no respect. They’re entitled, careless, and good for nothing. We’re doomed when it’s their turn to take over.” – A caveman, 35,000 BC

Along with “I’m never drinking again”, the Kids These Days spiel is probably one of the most repeated in the history of the human species.

How easily we forget just how hard it can be, to be a kid. To have very little say or control over what happens to you. To live in a world where adults wield seemingly absolute and arbitrary power. As a kid, I often felt like I was constantly skating on thin ice, that at any moment the wrath of an adult would come crashing down on me for some transgression I didn’t even realize I had committed.

Being autistic made it particularly tough. Navigating the rules of society felt like trying to make it through a room filled with those invisible sensor lasers. And even the rules I did understand where extremely hard to follow. Sit down. Keep still. Be quiet. Yep, that’ll go over well with a kinetic thinker with more energy than Tigger on an espresso bender. May as well try to tell a kangaroo not to hop.

When I misbehaved, which was often, it was almost always either unintentional, or a desperate attempt to exert some degree of control over the terrifyingly uncertain world around me.

Young people cop a lot of flak. I’m sure they always have. But as someone whose job is mentoring kids and teens on the spectrum, I don’t think we give our youth nearly enough credit. The young people I work with are passionate, thoughtful, and empathetic. They think outside the box. They question. They care deeply, sometimes to the point where it causes them great stress. And it saddens me to see them getting badmouthed, because they have so much to offer.

I think kids these days are a marvelous people, and knowing that they are the future fills me with optimism and hope.

Autism & Screen Addiction

Yet again, at the ripe old age of 28, I find myself teetering perilously on the brink of “back in my day” territory, something I swore at 18 I’d never give in to. But then again, it’s not like screen addiction wasn’t a thing when I was a kid, (back in the late Pleistocene) when it was TV and Gameboys.

Us Autistics can be especially vulnerable to screen addiction. In a world that’s often intense, scary, or inadequately stimulating, our various devices offer a refuge we can retreat to any time, an ever-present source of comfort, distraction, and stimulation. And in moderation, this can be a useful coping mechanism.

The problem arises when this refuge becomes a dependency; a comfort zone that we never leave. Comfort zones are sterile places; nothing grows there. If we retreat to our smartphone every time we’re in a social situation, we’ll never get the practice we need to develop social skills that don’t come naturally to us. If we bury ourselves in Minecraft on our tablet at the first sign of discomfort, we’ll never learn the resilience to cope with the world around us.

Screen use can also play havoc with our sleep cycles; the blueish light tricks the brain into thinking it’s looking at daylight, and keeps us awake and alert. It’s like drinking coffee through your eyes. To combat this I’ve made my bedroom a screen-free zone, and set myself a 10pm screen curfew.

Another helpful trick is to have breaks, like going to the beach or out to lunch or whatever and not bringing a tablet. At the camps I help run at I CAN Network, we take all the kids’ phones and tablets when they arrive, and give them back at the end of the camp. While there’s some separation anxiety at first, they quickly learn to cope without them, and over the course of the weekend they come out of their shells and start to engage more with the activities and their peers.

Like most things, our phones, tablets and computers have both positive and negative aspects. They can be wonderfully useful tools, but they can also be addictive and isolating, especially for people on the autism spectrum. The key is moderating their use so that they act as a support, not a shackle.

On a Personal Note

Sometimes, I almost wish it were true that people on the spectrum lacked empathy. Because right now, I feel sick from it.

There’s nothing physically wrong with me, but the ill will and discrimination unleashed by my country’s postal survey on marriage equality is seeping into me, like a frog absorbing pollution through its skin. It’s not even directed at me, I’m straight, but still it pools inside my chest like cold sludge.

For the first time in six years I feel the dark tendrils of depression crawling, probing, searching for cracks in my mind to grip into. It’s a feeling I thought I’d left behind forever.

I can’t imagine what it must feel like for those whose right to treated equally under the law is on the line; some of them are my friends, my family, my colleagues, even the teens on the spectrum that I mentor at work. I see them suffering, and I want so desperately to help, but I feel so powerless in the face of the endless horde of strangers queuing up to tell them they are inferior, they are defective, they don’t deserve to be treated equally.

I won’t tell you what to do, or what to believe, but if you’re an Aussie reading this, I would beg you not to act in anger or fear against those who are already suffering enough. Because I see the results; rising rates of self-harm, depression, and suicide in our youth.

Life’s a Beach

When you’re caught in a rip and being dragged out into the terrifying tumult of the open ocean, you have two choices.

You can swim against it, exhausting yourself while the shore ahead of you remains out of reach.

Or, you can swim sideways out of the rip, and let each wave boost you closer to solid ground.

The waves alone won’t get you there, but if you take advantage of the opportunity they offer, and swim with all your might, it’s not a matter of if you’ll get there, but when.

How to change a life

When I was 10, my Grade 4 teacher set aside some time in a morning class for me to show everyone the “jetpack” I had made with a little battery-powered fan and a yogurt container.

When I was 12, my Grade 6 teacher helped me get a short story I’d written published by sending it out to a whole bunch of magazines and other publications until one of them finally accepted it.

When I was 17, my English teacher encouraged me to read out some of my writing to the class, even though I was very anxious about doing so, and told me, and everyone, how great she thought it was.

When I was 19, and in tears because I felt like my life was over now that I’d finished school, my Mum and Dad walked me through applying to University and told me that however impossible it seemed, they truly believed I could do it.

When I was 25, unemployed and drifting aimlessly through life, a lady named Robyn and a guy named Chris Varney told me they thought I had what it took to be a mentor for autistic youth.

This is how easy it is to be a life-changing force for good in the life of a person on the spectrum. Every one of these people helped me get to where I am today, simply by expressing their belief in me, and thereby encouraging me to believe in myself.

I have been immensely blessed to have had such people in my corner, and if there is one thing I hope to accomplish in life, it’s to offer the same support to others on the spectrum. Because I know from personal experience that a little encouragement can make all the difference in the world.

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.