Max's shop of horrors

Warning: imagination testing site. Enter at own risk

Learning to shake hands

Early this year, I set myself a goal; that by the end of 2016, I would have trained myself to shake hands with people without flipping out. Now, that may not sound like a difficult thing, but when you have OCD, shaking someone’s hand can be the equivalent of an arachnophobe picking up a tarantula.

I don’t mean to sound derogatory or judgmental towards others, but whenever someone offered me their hand to shake, my OCD would kick into overdrive, and all I could think about was “you don’t know everywhere that hand has been and everything it might have touched” and “what if they forgot to wash their hands after going to a toilet” and “what if they sneezed into that hand or wiped their nose with it a few minutes ago?”

The fear would kick in like a shot of liquid nitrogen, and I’d tell them that sorry, I don’t do handshakes. It was nothing personal, I just would rather not deal with the anxiety that would inevitably result.

This year I resolved to confront this fear, using the same techniques I used to acclimatize myself to hugs, rubbish bins, public toilets, and public transport; gradual controlled exposure. I made a point of shaking hands whenever I met someone new. At first it was terrifying, but I forced myself to keep doing it, and over time, it got less and less scary.

I can’t say it’s completely lost its bite, but I’ve reached the point where I can cope with it reasonably well, and I no longer avoid it. And so, another battle is won in the ongoing war against anxiety. Now to decide which fear to target next. There are still plenty to choose from, but slowly yet surely, the list is shrinking.

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.

The Obligation to Lie

Humans are a strange lot. Our social customs can be so convoluted and bizarre that for those on the spectrum, trying to navigate them can be like trying to unravel a mating ball of snakes, or the wires behind your TV, if they had holes in their insulation and you were standing in a tub of dishwater.

One particular custom that a lot of us find very difficult is knowing when we are expected to lie.

In our society, people often ask questions not because they want an honest answer, but because they want to hear a specific response. Similarly, people often make statements for the sole purpose of being contradicted. “Am I ugly?” “That speech I gave today was so terrible.” “I look dreadful tonight.” “Did I mess that up?” “I’m such an idiot.”

Very often, we spectrum folk don’t realize we’re supposed to lie, and respond with a brutal honesty that can get us into trouble. It’s not that we’re being intentionally hurtful, but rather that we’re misinterpreting “Does my bum look big in this?” as a genuine request for feedback. It may not even occur to us that what’s really being asked for is reassurance.

Now, if you’re not on the spectrum, these kind of ‘white lies’ may seem so obvious and natural that it may be hard to imagine how they could be so confusing. Try to think of it this way; in some countries, the ‘thumbs up’ gesture is considered extremely rude, equivalent to a middle finger. If you live in one of these countries, you would know this instinctively, but if you come from a country like Australia where it’s a positive gesture, you may not realize this, and have no idea why you’ve caused offense. Many of us on the spectrum perceive social protocol through a similar lens; it’s like a foreign culture to us.

If you’re on the spectrum and want to err on the side of caution, a general rule is that if somebody makes a negative comment about themselves, they want to be contradicted, and if they ask for an opinion about themselves, they don’t want negative response.

Honesty, it turns out, isn’t always the best policy. Openness, on the other hand, can go a long way. In time, those of us on the spectrum can learn the nuances of social protocol, just as a person might learn a second language, or the customs of another culture. It takes time and practice, but it can be done. In the meantime, I’ve found that being open about the fact that I’m on the spectrum and find social skills challenging has helped to defuse many a misunderstanding.

Over to You

Max’s Shop of Horrors has been rolling off the presses every Tuesday for almost 3 years now. That’s close to 150 entries, and if blog ideas were trees, my brain right now resembles post-industrial Isengard.

Don’t worry; I’m not abandoning this blog. I’m just suffering a semi-fatal case of writer’s block this week, so I thought I’d open the floor to you guys, as your readership is the reason this blog has lasted as long as it has.

What kind of topics would you like to see me cover in future entries? You can let me know by leaving a comment here, or by commenting/messaging me on Twitter ( or Facebook. (

I can’t promise I’ll get around to covering every request, but any suggestions are welcome.

Thanks muchly for your support, you magnificent humanoids.

Flying under the radar

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I was diagnosed as being on the spectrum at the ripe old age of 19. While that’s certainly not the oldest I know of, it is older than is usual, at least for my generation, and I am often asked why it took so long. Well, it’s a long story, but here’s the short version.

Our story begins back in the primordial mists of 1989, an ancient epoch when perms, bum bags and the Soviet Union were still a thing, and the term “Asperger’s” had not yet been included in the World Health Organization’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.

Sure, Autism was a known condition, and there are many others my age who were diagnosed young, but the definition was somewhat narrower than it is today.

My parents were fairly sure I was on the spectrum from a relatively young age, but whenever I was tested by psychologists and the like, I didn’t quite fit into their pigeonhole of what Autism looked like. And so, my parents were told over and over that it was all in their heads. You’d think that hand flapping and intense interests would be dead giveaways, but apparently the “experts” thought I was too social and too clever to possibly be on the spectrum.

It wasn’t until I was 18, and my anxiety went off like Mount Doom at the end of Return of the King that I finally got my first diagnosis; Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. This explained my fears, but left the rest of my spectrum traits unaccounted for.

The following year, my parents arranged for me to be evaluated by one of the leading specialists on Autism in the state. Her verdict was conclusive; I was on the spectrum.

Being diagnosed as Autistic was a big relief for me, because I finally had an answer as to why I experienced the world so differently from those around me. For the first time in my life, everything made sense. I wish it had happened sooner, as I feel like this knowledge would have helped immensely during my high school years, but hey, at least it happened in time for University.

This is why it’s so important that we recognize the diversity of the spectrum; so that those who are on it but don’t quite match the examples in the textbook get the support and answers they need.

Digital Detox


As I get older, entering the withered decrepitude of my late 20s, the urge to revert into “kids these days” mode is increasingly difficult to resist. Having said that, I’m also a Millennial with a practically photosynthetic addiction to screens, so I’m trying to strike a bit of a middle ground here.

On the one hand, I do think a lot of the panic around the younger generation’s attachment to technology is just business as usual, the same old fear of the new and unfamiliar that saw television, rock ‘n’ roll, computers, motor vehicles, telephones, radio, and even the printing press demonized in their early days.

On the other hand, however, I believe that where there’s potential for dependency, there’s potential for abuse. For example, it’s fine to own and use a smartphone, but if going without it for even an hour can induce the symptoms of withdrawal, then we have a problem.

The weekend before last, I went to visit my Mum and Step-Dad, who live in the middle of the bush. Usually, I spend a good chunk of my day on the internet, but while I was there, I went without it. I also barely used my phone. And you know what? I felt great.

It made me realize that while constant access to the online world can be fun and useful, it can also be like having a ball and chain around my ankle, because it can feel like an obligation. It’s like I’m always on call; like I have to be available 24/7 to answer messages and emails, check my social media channels, etc. It can be as much a source stress as entertainment, and sometimes it’s nice to take a break from that.

I also cannot emphasize enough the therapeutic value of getting away from the urban/suburban sprawl with its endless assault of stimuli and taking some time out in a natural setting. A walk in the bush can be a wonderful antidote to stress and anxiety.

Our minds, like our bodies, need time to rest and recover, and sometimes unplugging for a few days can be just what we need.