Max's shop of horrors

Warning: imagination testing site. Enter at own risk

Month: November, 2016

Emotional Astronomy

When you live with anxiety, fears and worries are like the stars in the sky. They’re always there, but how many shine through depends on the conditions.

On a dark and lonely night, a countless multitude stab down like icy needles. But then you hang out with a friend or do something you enjoy, and it’s like the moon has risen, its comforting light blotting out the weaker fears and dulling the stronger ones.

It’s not just overtly happy feelings that help either; sometimes just keeping busy or exercising can be like cloud cover, muffling and burying.

Best of all though, is the sun. That one thing so overwhelmingly positive that it completely drowns out our anxiety. Everyone has their own sun. It could be throwing yourself into your favourite hobby. It could be spending time with your partner. Usually, it is the thing we love the most.

Naturally, it can’t always be sunny, and like the stars, our fears will always be there, but that doesn’t mean they’ll always hold sway.

Social Hangovers

You wake up drained, feeling like your mojo has been sucked dry by space vampires from the dark side of Pluto. Your head aches, and your brain spins its wheels in the quicksand of fatigue.

“Oh God,” you murmur to yourself. “I swear, I’ll never socializing like that again.”

When you’re on the spectrum, socializing can be a lot like alcohol; sure, it can be fun when you’re doing it, but too much can knock us out of commission and take a whole day to recover from.

After all, it’s hard work; our brains are working overtime, trying to manually analyse countless verbal, visual, and contextual cues that most people process automatically. At the same time, we’re acting; we have to consciously think about what we’re doing with our faces, voices and bodies. It’s like being on stage, or on camera. Hours of that can be incredibly tiring.

Naturally, after such exertions, we need a bit of a break. Sometimes that might mean a couple of hours, but after a particularly taxing social binge, we may need to take a day for ourselves, to regroup. It’s nothing personal, and it’s not that we’re lazy or weak, any more than someone who works full time is lazy or weak for taking weekends off. And it’s certainly nothing to be ashamed of or feel guilty for.

Ultimately, we need to take care of ourselves, and part of that is knowing when to take it easy.

Punching through the stratosphere

Imagine trying to explain to someone in the year 1900 that before the century was out, humans would have traveled to the moon, put robots on Mars, and invented a global electronic network through which information could be shared almost instantaneously.

In all likelihood, they wouldn’t believe you, because in their mind, such things would be beyond the limits of reasonable probability. People tend to think that nowadays we’re more enlightened, but the truth is, all too often we see the world through a similarly limited view. We place restrictive limitations on what we believe ourselves or other people are capable of.

One of the privileges of my position is that I get to see these limits shattered on a daily basis.

I work with a guy on the spectrum whose parents were once told that he wouldn’t be able to go to a mainstream school. He is currently nearing the end of a PhD in medicine.

I’ve worked with students who in the space of a few months have gone from being too scared to utter a word in class, to giving a speech in front of hundreds of people.

I know numerous individuals who were expected to never finish school, or get a job, or live independently, but who managed to surpass these limiting predictions like a rocket breaking free of Earth’s gravity and hurtling into space.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s to never underestimate someone’s potential. If you showed that person from 1900 the Apollo 11 rocket, they’d probably say it would never get off the ground. And yet there are footprints on the moon.

An idle Aspie can be a recipe for catastrophe

One of the paradoxes of the spectrum, at least in my experience, is that while over-stimulation is a constant threat, looming overhead like a flying elephant that’s recently drunk prune juice, under-stimulation can be just as dangerous.

When I’m busy, I can focus on the task at hand to distract myself from negative thoughts. But when my mind is unoccupied, things like anxiety and frustration tend to bubble to the surface.

When I finished University, I spent six months unemployed before I started doing volunteer work. I had all the spare time in the world, and very little in the way of stressful obligations. And yet, I was miserable. Day after day I sat on my computer doing nothing, marinating in a seething broth of self-loathing, loneliness, and feelings of inadequacy.

When I did start working, doing meals on wheels for the local council, I found that a small amount of external stress was actually a very effective antidote to the overwhelming internal stress I’d been experiencing when I had nothing to do. To this day, I hate it when I have more than a few days in a row without work, and I actually look forward to days when I’m busy.

Currently, unemployment levels in the autistic community are tragically high, and in my opinion, one of the reasons this is so damaging is because it means so many of us are left with no diversions from our inner demons. We’re not getting that healthy mild dose of external stress to inoculate us against the turmoil within.

A good short term solution can be volunteer work; not only did this work wonders for my mental health, but it also helped me to transition into paid employment. In the meantime, it’s also good to just be aware that an absence of external stressors is not necessarily a good thing. An idle mind can be a breeding ground for anxiety and depression, and sometimes it’s better to push ourselves than to suffocate in our comfort zone.

(Dis)Closing the Deal

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One topic I get asked about a lot is whether or not someone on the spectrum should disclose their condition to an employer when applying for a job. I myself have been very fortunate in this regard; my autism was actually one of the reasons I got my current job as a mentor and speaker. But I do realize that not every employer is as spectrum-friendly as mine.

As I general rule, I would advise disclosure. However, I think that how you disclose is of critical importance. If you frame your autism in an entirely negative way, and make it sound like nothing but a liability, then it will probably hurt your chances.

On the other hand, if you detail the strengths that your autism grants you instead of just the challenges, then you can turn that liability into an asset.

For example, instead of saying “I have autism and that means I get stressed out and can’t deal with noise”, say that while it does give you some sensitivities, it also gives you a high level of focus, determination, attention to detail, or whatever your autistic strengths happen to be. Make them aware of whatever difficulties you may have, but also play up the positives. Sell your autism as a skillset rather than a disease.

Not only will this improve your chances of landing the job, but you’ll also be helping to dispel negative stereotypes about autism, and in turn, helping to build a future where being on the spectrum won’t be a barrier to employment.