Max's shop of horrors

Warning: imagination testing site. Enter at own risk

Month: August, 2016

Unspoken Love

It’s a story I’ve heard many times. Sometimes, it’s a parent asking about their child on the spectrum. Sometimes, a spouse asking about their partner on the spectrum. Sometimes it’s framed as a fearful question. Other times the question itself is implied but left unsaid, as if to speak it aloud would give power and reality to the answer they dread.

Whatever the case may be, it’s always some variant of “how do I know if he/she loves me?” or “I don’t think he/she loves me.”

When probed as to why they might think so, the response is generally along the lines of “well, they never tell me that they love me.”

In my experience, however, if the partner or family member in question is actually asked about this, their reaction is usually one of bewilderment. Often, they’ll say that they “didn’t know they needed to say it every day”; that they thought it went without saying that they loved their parents, or their spouse. Others may simply not be very comfortable with expressing their emotions; they love their partner or their parents very much, but telling them so might feel like being naked in public.

It seems a common misconception that if a feeling is not openly expressed, and regularly reiterated, then it must not exist. But just because you can’t see music, or hear the moon, or taste the sun, doesn’t mean they’re not there.

Max’s Shop of Horrors: Live at Victorian Autism Conference 2016!

Two and a half years ago when I started this blog, (you know, back in stone age when we rode dinosaurs to school) I never imagined that it would gain the readership that it has. Apparently, a lot of you really care about what I have to say, which leaves me somewhat baffled, yet deeply grateful.

A lot has happened in that time; I’ve started working in autism advocacy for both I CAN Network and Asperger’s Victoria, and I’ve had the privilege of sharing my opinions at schools,  Universities, and even a city council.

On the 2nd of September this year, however, I’ll be stepping up to the mic at my biggest event yet; the Victorian Autism Conference 2016.

I’ve been invited to give a talk about “Autism and Gaming,” and as someone who is both autistic and a gamer, I’ve got a lot to say about it! I will endeavour to provide in my speech there all the qualities that have made this blog successful, and I hope I can offer some useful insights.

Some of you may be there in person, but for those who are not, I will see if I can secure a recording of my talk to share at a later date.

I just wanted to share this with you all, and to convey my sincerest thanks, because if you guys hadn’t embraced my blog and propelled it to success the way you have, I might never have had this opportunity.

So here’s to you guys; I’ll try to do you proud.

PS: Check out the flyer they gave me! Kinda surreal seeing my face on a poster!


Getting to sleep: A hyperactive over-thinker’s guide

According to the National Sleep Foundation in the US, it takes 10-20 minutes for the average person to fall asleep at night. I don’t think I have ever fallen asleep that fast in my entire life. For me, it’s usually 1 to 2 hours. I just lie there in the dark, my brain still spinning as though there’s a hamster on a wheel up there whose grain feed got replaced with coffee beans. A million thoughts swirl like one of those time lapse videos of a cloudy sky, with an especially unpleasant one often latching onto me like one of the facehuggers from Alien.

Apparently, this is actually quite common, particularly among people on the spectrum.

Much like my OCD, this is a problem I’ve taken a very logistical approach to, drawing up a set of protocols to help myself wind down and prepare for sleep. Since so many others seem to experience similar difficulties, I figure I’d share what worked for me. So here it is; Max’s field-tested guidelines for getting to sleep!

  • No caffeinated or sugary drinks after 5pm. I do enjoy a dose of Liquid Lightning now and then, in fact I’m currently writing this in a wide-eyed frenzy as I clutch a steaming mug for dear life. Once consumed, however, caffeine has a half-life of 5 to 6 hours, which means if you drink coffee at 6pm, you could still be buzzing at midnight. As such, I make sure I have my last tea or coffee of the day before 5pm. Soft drinks and energy drinks are also best avoided after this time.
  • No phones or tablets in bed. When I go to bed, I put my phone away. The light of its screen tricks your brain’s pineal gland into thinking it’s still daytime, so when you lie in bed playing with it, it’s like chugging espresso.
  • Avoid things you know are stressful or exciting before bed. I’ve learned the hard way that if I go to bed in an elevated emotional state, I’ll be tossing and turning well in the A.M. Therefore, in the last two hours or so before attempting sleep, I avoid visiting websites, watching programs, or reading material that I know will likely agitate me. (Especially anything involving politics!)
  • Turn screen brightness down after dark. While it would probably be best for me to avoid screens altogether in the hours leading up to bed, let’s face it, that’s just too hard for some of us. As a compromise, I turn the brightness of my computer screen down after dark so minimize the amount of light entering my eyes.
  • Do something relaxing before going to bed. Guided meditation videos, soothing music, ASMR, mindfulness/breathing exercises, and other calming activities have all been helpful to me in getting into a relaxed state of mind before attempting to sleep.
  • Don’t wait until the last minute. You may have noticed a running theme here; in general, the earlier you start preparing for sleep, the better. Don’t wait until 5 minutes before bed to start winding down. Begin hours in advance, so that by the time you go to bed, your brain has had plenty of time to slow down and isn’t over-stimulated.

While these methods are by no means a silver bullet, I personally have found them very useful in aiding my perpetually troubled quest for sleep. I can’t promise they’ll work for everyone, but if you’re struggling, they’re worth a try.

Empathy Overload

Some myths die harder than the lovechild of Bruce Willis and Deadpool. For instance, ask around pretty much any rural town in Australia and you’ll hear stories of the local big cat that escaped from a circus in the 1960s and still roams the bush nearby. Likewise, the old chestnut that people on the spectrum lack empathy just refuses to choke out.

But these misconceptions don’t just spring forth from nowhere. To use the big cat example, such legends are fueled by the fact that feral cats grow much larger than their domestic cousins, and that the back end of a swamp wallaby disappearing into the bushes looks eerily like the back end of a panther.

I think one of the biggest contributors to this idea that autistics lack empathy is, paradoxically, that we can feel it very strongly. At times, perhaps too strongly. As a child or even a teenager, I could be brought to tears by a classmate killing a moth or a spider. To this day, reading about injustices and inequality can make me intensely angry and upset. (In my experience, those of us on the spectrum often have strong feelings in this regard; we know what it’s like to be discriminated against, so we don’t like seeing it happen to others)

Just as people on the spectrum can feel overwhelmed by sensory stimuli like bright light, loud noises, and crowds, so too can we feel overwhelmed by intense emotion. In the face of such an overload, one of the mind’s defence mechanisms is to withdraw.

And so we try to suppress our empathy sometimes, in order to protect ourselves, in the same way that one might cover their ears against an onslaught of noise. We don’t lack empathy, any more than the person covering their ears lacks hearing.

Kinetic Thinking

One of the hardest things about school for me was having to sit still and be quiet for extended periods of time. Not only did I have more energy than Roadrunner on a sherbet bender, but I just didn’t do my best thinking when I wasn’t moving.

To this day, when I need to think about how to word an article or a speech I have to give for work, I pace around the room, I go for a walk, I dance, I flap my hands. It’s as though moving my body somehow stimulates and powers my thinking, while also venting out energy that would otherwise cloud my brain like radio static. Sitting still, on the other hand, is like trying to hold in a fart in front of your crush, or eat a grapefruit with a straight face.

One of the great things about my current job is that I’m free to do just that; since the organization I work for consists mostly of people on the spectrum, they’re very understanding of my need to keep moving. As a result, not only is it a more comfortable work environment than, say, high school ever was, but I feel that I actually perform better in terms of the quality and quantity of work I am able to produce.

As a classroom mentor of kids on the spectrum, this got me thinking; what if students who are kinetic thinkers like me were allowed to move around the classroom or go for a walk outside to process their work, instead of having to sit still and shut up? Would their performance also improve?

This is something I’d really like to try out with my own students, because I suspect the results would show that, like me, a lot of these kids just need a little freedom of movement instead of being stuck in a chair for hours on end.

What’s so great about sitting down all day, anyway? It certainly isn’t healthy, or comfortable. Yet our classrooms and our offices are designed around it. Bolting active thinkers in place then complaining they’re not productive is like painting your greenhouse black then complaining that your veggies won’t grow.