Max's shop of horrors

Warning: imagination testing site. Enter at own risk

Month: April, 2014

The hard road behind

I’m often told I should “forget the past, look ahead to the future”. Righto mate; while we’re at it let’s make a bonfire out of books and film prints, (Old nitrate film burns hotter than petrol and is almost impossible to put out cos it generates its own oxygen. Just don’t breathe the fumes or you too will be history) and knock down those pesky museums to make car parks.

Another phrase that gets passed around like some kind of mutant crossbreed of gossip and herpes is the “hard road ahead”. But what about the hard road behind?

I’m not just talking about learning from mistakes either; our achievements in the past speak to our ability to handle what lies ahead. When I find myself faced with a looming struggle, I look back at all the obstacles I’ve already conquered, which usually dwarf my current predicament.

I once thought I’d never be able to move out of home because of my OCD and autism; I have. I once thought I’d never make  it to University; I did. At one point I couldn’t leave my house; I just spent three days helping run a camp out in the bush for young adults with autism. In light of this, the half an hour trip to work suddenly seems about an intimidating as a rampaging wild asparagus.

The harshest fire forges the toughest metal; it’s the challenges we have faced and survived that have molded us into the powerful, capable people we are today. I don’t want to bury my past, because it’s an encyclopedia of proof that I can handle whatever is thrown at me.

Sneak preview of my latest book

As several people have expressed interest in the story I’m currently working on: “Skyscraper”, so this week I thought I’d do a little shameless self-promotion, and offer a bit of a sneak peek!

Please note that the following is an unedited draft, so there may be mistakes and general sloppiness.

Any and all feedback is welcome.

Enjoy! (I hope)

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Danielle sat up on the cold asphalt. Her ears were ringing, but other than that, she felt fine. She looked down at herself; there were no visible injuries. Even her school uniform was clean and undamaged.

Then she looked around, and her stomach clenched. In every direction, the asphalt stretched uninterrupted into the shadowy distance. Only a single object broke the otherwise featureless world; a single impossibly tall skyscraper about a hundred meters ahead of her. Most of its windows were broken, there wasn’t a single light from inside, and huge chunks were torn from it. It looked as though a stiff breeze would send it crashing down. Almost the entire sky was covered by swirling black clouds, except for a small, gleaming blue circle like the eye of a hurricane, just above the skyscraper.

But it wasn’t just her bizarre surroundings that worried her. She couldn’t remember how she’d gotten there. In fact, she couldn’t remember much of anything. She knew her name was Danielle, and that she was sixteen years old, but beyond that, almost everything was a vague blur.

“Hello?” She called. The darkness absorbed and suppressed the sound. There was no response, not even an echo. “Help!” She screamed at the top of her lungs. All the volume she could muster made no difference.

She breathed deeply, trying to defuse her panic. This has to be a dream, she decided. I just have to wait until I wake up. So she waited. For a long while, nothing happened. Then she noticed with an icy rush of terror that it was gradually getting darker. Looking up, she saw that the circular window of blue sky above the tower was slightly smaller than it had been when she first saw it. She didn’t know why this frightened her so much, but suddenly sitting there and waiting was no longer an option.

Danielle scrambled to her feet and ran towards the skyscraper. By some basic, primordial instinct, she knew she had to get to the top, and fast.

It might have looked like a hundred meters or so to the base of the skyscraper, but it seemed more like a kilometre by the time Danielle reached it, panting for breath. Despite the damage to its structure, it didn’t appear old or weathered; more like a new building that had been ravaged by some terrible disaster.

Its sliding, automated front doors were closed, and in their dark glass, Danielle caught a glimpse of herself; a slight girl with shoulder-length black hair and dark eyes. There was a careless frailty in her bearing, as though she’d given up trying to exist and let reality do it for her.

To her surprise, the doors parted smoothly as she approached, despite there being no other sign that the building had electricity.

The lobby was immaculate, shadowy, and desolate. She quickly spotted two doors, one clearly an elevator, the other labelled with a picture of stairs. No point taking the elevator with the building half wrecked, she thought, hurrying to the latter door and grabbing the handle.

The moment she touched it, there was a deafening crack, and white hot agony tore through her head. Caught off guard, she cried out and fell to her knees, clutching her skull in both hands. The pain faded quickly, and was gone in seconds. Breathing hard, Danielle got to her feet, looking around. She couldn’t see any obvious cause for the sound or the sensation, but given it had happened precisely when she touched the door to the stairs, she decided to try the elevator after all.

She pressed the button to call it, and the doors opened immediately.  White light flooded into the gloomy lobby from the elevator’s vacant, brightly lit interior; besides the gap in the clouds, it was most welcoming thing Danielle had seen so far in this strange, forbidding place. She stepped inside and pressed the button for the top floor; 201.

The doors closed, and the elevator lurched into motion, but it seemed to be moving very slowly. At this rate, it’ll take forever to get to the top, thought Danielle, if it gets there at all.

As if confirming her fears, a deep, thunderous vibration shook the elevator, followed by another a moment later. The pattern repeated itself over and over. Thump-thump. Thump-thump. Thump-thump. Like a heartbeat.

Then, at the 9th floor, it ground to a halt, and the light went out, plunging Danielle into pitch blackness. Just as terror began to take hold of her, the doors slid open, revealing a room so dazzlingly bright that she couldn’t see what was in it. Shielding her aching eyes with one hand, Danielle stepped out of the elevator.

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The I Can Network

I usually don’t post more than once a week, but this is special circumstances.

A few months ago, I started working for the I Can Network, an organization dedicated to supporting people with autism.

As I’ve talked about extensively, here are certain challenges that come with autism. These difficulties, combined with autism being commonly seen and treated as a disability creates an “I Can’t” mentality. “I can’t do this because I have autism” and “you have autism, so you’ll never be able to do that.”

The goal of the I Can Network is to turn “I Can’t” into “I Can”. To focus on the wonderful things that people with autism can do, and to support them in achieving the things they thought they couldn’t. Many of our managing team have autism, so we know our stuff.

From the 25th to the 27th of this month, we will be running our first “I Can” camp at Gembrook, outside Melbourne, where young adults with autism (age 18-30) will be able to share their interests and skills, listen to some great motivational speakers, and above all, have fun.

This past Sunday the camp’s facilitators met to organize the event, and the meeting itself was a remarkable example of what the camp can offer young adults with autism. For instance, one of our members was very hesitant to share an idea, convinced it was “stupid”, but with encouragement from others he finally shared it, and it turned out to be a fantastic idea. This is the kind of mutual support and positive atmosphere the camp will promote.

The camp is still open for applications, and you can register online at: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1EoqeoGWnRQ-ZebzeT-7sg7EYD9hQPgaDUF1V8ATQnfg/viewform

 

Time trials

There are few things scarier to me than not knowing the schedule for the rest of the day. Seriously, it’s up there with Australian Bat Lyssavirus, asking girls out, and being stuck in the zoo’s lion enclosure at night with a steak super-glued to my bum.

I have this intense need to know when important events and tasks will take place, and how long they will last. If someone tells me they’ll arrive at 4 o’clock, and they show up at 5, I get irrationally upset, though I’ll try my best to hide it. If  someone tells me a job will take an hour and we’re still going after an hour and fifteen minutes, it’ll be hell between my ears. Because if it isn’t over in the time I was told, how much longer will I be stuck there? Two hours? Three? I feel trapped and helpless. The schedule for the day I had planned out in my head falls to pieces, and I just want to scream.

Springing things on me doesn’t work too well either. For instance, if I’m going to go to out partying, I need to know at least a day in advance so I can mentally prepare myself, cos for me, partying can be a very stressful undertaking.

And if there’s one thing worse than not knowing, it’s plans changing at the last minute, and broken promises.

Planning ahead gives me a sense of comfort and security. It’s like this: if I can see the upcoming hurdles, I’ll be ready for them. On the other hand, imagine a race where the hurdles pop up out of the ground like demonic gophers on speed when you’re a meter away. Or where you use up all your energy by the finish line, and suddenly, “just kidding, the real finish line is somewhere down that road, off you go.”

My Dad used to drive me bonkers as a kid. “Hey Dad, how long til dinner?” (Dad looks from me to the stove) “About two and a half meters.” If I had dollar for every time he cracked that one, I’d be richer than Bruce Wayne and every James Bond villain put together.

Still, Dad did have a very comforting sense of schedule; every Friday was family movie night, every Thursday Star Trek night, every Sunday fish and chips night, every full moon pizza night. These I could look forward to with the confidence that they would happen as promised.

All this said, I do recognize that in the long run, such rigidity is potentially about as healthy as a deep fried cigarette burger with extra plutonium sauce. So I am taking steps to train myself out of it, using the same method I use to combat OCD; gradual, controlled confrontation. For example, I might I make myself wait until after dinner before deciding what to do for the night.

This is a rather new project, mere months old, while my OCD inoculations have been going for years. But given the success of the latter, I have high hopes that my scheduling obsession can  be brought under control. Maybe this same approach will help with other fears too, though I admit I’m a little nervous about trying it with the lion pen.

At the same time, though, maybe this particular obsession doesn’t need to be totally eradicated; careful planning can be helpful in moderation. In my experience, a lot of problems are really just positives that have gotten out of control. Moderate consumption of red wine has been linked to reduced risk of heart disease, but chugging a bottle every night probably isn’t a great idea. Sugar is incredibly damaging in excess, but without any at all, we couldn’t survive.

I just need to get my timetabling down to the Recommended Daily Intake.

The empathy misconception

One of the most prevalent myths I’ve encountered about people with Asperger’s is that we have no empathy. That we just don’t feel for others.

In my experience, this is up there with video games turning  kids into shroom-devouring, tortoise-murdering plumbers.

Okay, there may be some for whom it’s true, (as always, I can’t speak for everyone with Asperger’s) but many Aspies actually feel more empathy than their non-autistic counterparts. And not just towards people, either.

As a child, I remember being reduced to tears by finding a moth that had gotten wet and had its wings destroyed. I just couldn’t stop thinking about how it would suffer for the rest of its life, unable to fly, but also incapable of understanding this and working itself to death trying. In my first year of high school, the class bullies quickly recognized this vulnerability, and used to kill and maim insects to upset me.

I even felt excessive and irrational empathy for inanimate objects. For example, I used to have a fabric bag of wheat that I would heat up in the microwave then take to bed on cold nights, like a hot water bottle. Instead of using it to heat myself, however, I felt like it was a living thing, and that  had to keep it warm to keep it “alive”. I would stuff it under my pillow to preserve its heat as long as possible, and I was always sad when I woke in the morning to find it cold.

But I digress; we can feel empathy towards our fellow homo sapiens as well. Again, sometimes excessively so, like feeling sadness for someone who merely missed dessert.

When it comes to expressing it, however, two distinct problems can come come into play.

The first is recognizing when someone is upset. Verbal and body language cues can be hard to pick up when you’re autistic. I mean, if someone’s crying, shouting, or throwing vases/coffee cups/ninja stars at my head, then I get the message, but if it’s the simmering kind, that’s a whole lot trickier. My first (and so far only) relationship broke down largely because she thought I didn’t care about her feelings, when in fact I just didn’t always notice  when she was feeling down. It was a mutual misunderstanding; nobody’s fault.

The second is that when we do recognize it, figuring out an appropriate response can be like trying to do a three-point turn on the Bridge of Kazad-dum. If we say the wrong thing, or just overload, freeze up, and say nothing, then once again it can be mistakenly assumed that we don’t give a damn.

Long story short, we can be very mushy on the inside, but it doesn’t always show.

If you have a friend or partner who has Asperger’s, transparency is absolutely key. You may feel like you’re sending us open and clear signals, but to us it could be like wandering in halfway through one of the weirder episodes of Star Trek, when Scotty’s explaining that they have to use a triaxilating anti-graviton beam to disrupt the subspace coronawaffle. Or worse, it cruises over our heads like a stealth bomber.

Naturally, it works best when the transparency goes both ways. I’m now very open with my friends about the effects of my autism; better to explain myself before a potential misunderstanding than after it. Most people have only a vague idea of what autism is; helping them understand makes it easier for both parties.

The gulf between someone with autism and someone without it in how they see the world can be too wide to be bridged from just one side. But when both sides meet half way, that’s when the magic happens.

The magic of ASMR

A gentle whisper in your ear. Personal attention from a doctor or a dentist with a soothing voice. The sound of water splashing musically into a glass. Whatever the trigger might be, a pleasurable tingling sensation spreads across your scalp, and a soft, almost euphoric relaxation flows through you. If this sounds familiar, you may experience ASMR; a phenomenon so mysterious that science hasn’t completely figured out how it works yet, and so wonderful that words can’t do it justice.

ASMR stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response.  It’s basically a pleasant, relaxing feeling triggered by exposure to certain stimuli, usually visuals and sound. These triggers can vary dramatically from person to person, but common ones include those already mentioned, as well as sounds of crinkling or rustling paper, clinking glass, and certain accents.

With the advent of youtube, a whole community of ASMR artists has emerged.  These people make videos where they try to trigger ASMR in the viewer by speaking softly to the camera, using props to create sound effects, or even role playing as a doctor conducting an eye exam or a hairdresser giving a trim.

Here’s an example of an ASMR artist role playing as a mother tending to an injured child:

For those who experience ASMR, it can be an incredibly effective tool for relaxation, sleep, and coping with stress. My own discovery of it a few years ago has helped me immensely in dealing with my OCD. Others have claimed it helps them manage Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Insomnia, and a variety of other anxiety and sleep disorders.

It’s a lot like meditation or yoga, in that it allows the brain to focus and shut out unpleasant feelings and thoughts.

So far there has been very little research done on ASMR; for instance, nobody’s bothered to give someone a brain scan while they experience it, to see what parts of the brain are being stimulated. However, the massive popularity of ASMR videos and artists, and the abundance of anecdotal evidence suggest it’s a widespread phenomenon.

Over my last few blog entries I’ve been addressing coping strategies, and there are few I have found as helpful as ASMR. I can’t count the number of times it has helped me recover from a panic attack, or allowed me to put aside my fears and go to bed.

The ASMR community helped give me my life back, and for that I cannot thank them enough.

I know all this may sound strange to some of you, but if you suffer from anxiety, I urge you to try it out; a whole new world could be waiting for you.

 

Here are the channels of some of the more popular ASMR artists:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCFDJKJ-TbnvGLVky0iTdUEw

https://www.youtube.com/user/HeatherFeatherASMR

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCpaA4eQJVVtca_U1UKPQouQ