Max's shop of horrors

Warning: imagination testing site. Enter at own risk

Month: June, 2014

The value of volunteering

As I covered in a previous post,  autism and employment can have relationship a little like water and sodium. For some it works out fine, but for others, well…

After University, I wanted to enter the workforce, but my experience with 9 hour work days on study placement taught me that constant bombardment of stimuli for such long periods at a time tended to reduce me to a quivering, ineffective lump whose nerves could be used as guitar strings. So, like entering an icy cold swimming pool, I decided to ease my way in.

I looked into what volunteer positions were available in my area. Meals on wheels caught my eye; shifts were only 1-2 hours, I wouldn’t have to deal with crowds, and work days were flexible. While it can still be a bit stressful sometimes if I’m delivering to people who are sick, in general I can handle it fairly well.

Later, when this blog came to the attention of the I Can Network, I was recruited into their growing ranks, and I now work as a mentor, writer, and editor for them as well.

As it turned out, volunteer work was the best thing to happen to me in years. It’s benefits were numerous; it got me out of the house and gave me something productive to do with my time. It gradually acclimatized me to the demands of the workplace. It made me feel useful. It introduced me to many people I now consider good friends. It gave me references to use on my resume.

Like many people on the autism spectrum, I’ve been through the Berty-Botts-Every-Flavoured-Beans buffet of pharmaceuticals over the years. Some were helpful, others not so much. But I’ve never taken any pill that was as effective an anti-depressant as volunteer work.

If you are one of the 66% of people with autism who are unemployed, I urge you give volunteer work a shot. There’s a wide range of positions, so you should be able to find something that suits your needs, and you might just find it as invaluable as I did.


Special interests

One of the big parts of having autism (in my experience anyway) is having very strong interests. And when I say “very strong” I mean in the same way as Absinthe, Carolina Reaper chillis, and the Incredible Hulk.

Some people with autism love steam trains. They can tell you how many of each class were built, the boiler volume,  engine length, horsepower, and wheel circumference of each different class, and the year that each was first manufactured. Others have similar passions for video game hardware, space exploration, or the Bible/Quran.

Of course, you don’t have to have autism to have hobbies, but for people with autism, these interests are to hobbies as a skinny latte is to an intravenous espresso drip. For me, it’s like if my brain was a computer, and it always has a window open for my current interest, no matter where I am or what I’m doing. I spend a huge amount of my time thinking about it, simply because it’s enjoyable to do so. (As well as both relaxing and energizing. That may sound like a paradox, but it’s more like cold ice cream on a warm apricot pie 😉 )

For the most part it’s one of the upsides of autism, but like the caffeine hangover from that coffee injection, or chillis leaving you feeling like you just tongue kissed Smaug, it can be difficult sometimes.

For one thing, it can be very hard to concentrate on something like work when there’s this vastly more appealing tab on your brain’s toolbar just waiting to be clicked on; it’s like trying to do homework and watch an episode of Game of Thrones on the same computer. Yep, we all know how that one’s gonna end!

The other issue can be the curse of caring too much. For instance, I know people with autism who become anxious and depressed if, say, the film they are a fan of flops at the Box Office, or their favourite football team loses. That may sound silly, but when an interest or passion is so intense and personal, not being able to look forward to your team being in the next game or your favourite film getting a sequel can be disproportionately upsetting. Losing that excitement that sustains you and gives you reprieve from the stress of the world is like suddenly going off anti-depressants.

In my experience, however, the positives FAR outweigh the negatives, and its one of the great strengths of autism, because when we channel our special interests, we’re unstoppable.

Flippin’ Fomites

I know, what the bleep is a fomite, right? I hadn’t heard of them either til this year. Sounds like a baddie from the Legend of Zelda series, or something that would explode if you put a flame to it. (Or looked at it funny)

A fomite’s basically any object that can carry contagious organisms; everything from discarded syringes to door knobs.

I may not have known the word, but as for the thing itself, I’m pretty sure I’ve had specialized lobe of my brain dedicated to them since 2006. OCD keeps track of these things like a tinfoil-hat conspiracy theorist plastering newspaper cutouts around the inside of their house. (Or in this case, the inside of my skull)

For example, if someone steps in bird poo or a tissue, then doesn’t take their shoes off when they come into my house, I’ll remember everywhere they stepped like they’re laying invisible landmines, and try to avoid those spots. (Which often results in me looking like I’m playing indoor hopscotch, doing an impression of Big Bird’s mating dance, or trying to cross one of those Indiana Jones puzzles where stepping on the wrong tile kills you)

What’s really annoying is when the little buggers (the fomites, not people!) form “chains of transmission” that just get silly. For example, somebody walks around my house in dirty shoes. Then they drop a Wii remote on the floor where they’ve stepped, and pick it up. Then they touch my phone. My OCD throws on its tinfoil hat and says that the contamination has just passed from their shoes, to the floor, to the remote, to their hand, to my phone.

Now, that may sound absurd, but the annoying thing about OCD is that it bypasses rational thought; it’s the same as when you hear that anyone who looks in the mirror and says “Bloody Mary” three times will die. You know it’s a load of poppycock, but if you go to do it, there’s still that irrational, lurking fear. (Which explains why those awful “once you start reading this you can’t stop, share or you will die” things still get passed around the internet like chlamydia)

To combat this, I came up with what I called the PeTaL test; Presence, (are there realistically any dangerous germs in the first place?) Transmission, (would the contact pass them on, and if the amount passed on is less each time, would it still be infectious after 5 or so “transmissions”?) and Longevity. (Most of the really nasty micro-organisms can’t live outside the body for long)

I found that most situations would fail to pass at least one of these three tests, which made it easier to “break the chain” and dismiss them.

It’s still not easy; there’s a part of my brain that’s constantly keeping track of everything that everyone around me touches, setting off blood-chilling alarm bells every time they step in animal dung, pick their nose, or cough/sneeze. But I’m getting better at outsmarting it.

Guilty by reason of public autism?

First of all, a disclaimer: I’ve never taken part in the whole cop/ticket inspector bashing thing. The way I see it, they’re just doing their jobs.

The story I’m about to tell isn’t intended as an attack on the authorities, or even the people involved, but rather as evidence that awareness of autism is still something we need to improve. I’m also not saying this only happens to people with autism, or that it was a targeted act of discrimination. It was a misunderstanding, but for me, a traumatic one.

The other night, I went to a friend’s birthday dinner. Afterwards, at about 9:15pm, I walked to the station to catch a train home. (For the record, I was completely sober, unless its possible to get drunk from a strawberry milkshake)

I’d been sitting down for three hours, so my legs needed stretching like a Uni student in exams week needs a caffeine drip. So I walked to the end of the platform, and paced back and forth, happily lost in my own thoughts, waiting for the train.

After a minute or so, I saw two of the new “protective services” guys who hang around train stations now, (not sure if they count as cops) coming towards me. I assumed they wanted to check my Myki (for those of you outside Melbourne/Victoria/Australia, a Myki is an electronic card you use to pay for trains) or something, so I walked to meet them.

As I reached them, they immediately asked me in a rather intimidating manner; “where’s the bottle?” I told them I didn’t have one. “We saw you hiding something behind your leg,” he responded. I knew immediately what had happened; one of my autistic ticks is that I often hold my hands quite rigidly, in this case down by my thighs. I explained this to them, trying to remain as calm and polite as possible, but my anxiety, another by-product of my autism, made me visibly nervous, and I worried that I appeared guilty because of this.

They told me they were going to have a look around, and that if they found a bottle, I was in trouble. By this point, I was nauseous with fear. Authority figures and getting in trouble have terrified me since I was a child, and these guys were treating me like I was guilty until proven innocent.

They started shining their torches into the bushes near the platform, and into the rubbish bins. I could hardly breathe; what if someone else had dumped a bottle in the bin hours ago, or in the bushes days ago? My skin crawled with the pins and needles of adrenaline.

To my immense relief, they found nothing, and walked away. I was left to collect the tattered shreds of my nerves, and to face the equally uncomfortable realization that my autism had almost gotten me in trouble for something I didn’t do.

Now, I don’t know what the story was with these guys; maybe they’d been having a rough night dealing with aggressive drunks before spotting me. However, they certainly knew little about autism, as they didn’t seem to even consider my explanation for why I was holding my hands funny.

Since this event, I’ve felt nervous and unsafe on train platforms and around the protective services, which has made travelling by public transport an even more intimidating process than it already was.

Greater awareness and understanding of autism can prevent incidents like this, and that’s one of the key goals of the organization I work for, the I Can Network.