Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Using Spoons

I've read all about spoon theory. Who hasn't? Well, perhaps people who don't spend far too much time on Tumblr and Facebook haven't. The idea can be read here, but to put it briefly, while people with no issues start the day with unlimited spoons, those of us with a chronic condition or other issues start the day with a limited supply. If you choose to use your spoons on putting on your makeup and walking to the bus you will have fewer spoons to use later on other things. But I'd always seen these restricted amount of spoons as something for those with depression, those with narcolepsy, those with chronic fatigue, and so on.

I've only just realised that, as an autistic person, I'm running on a limited amount of spoons too. (I'm not always very self aware.) Perhaps on a perfect day, when I can stay at home, when there are no other people around, when I have nothing pressing to deal with, my spoons are limitless too. But as soon as you pull in interaction with the great world, suddenly the spoons disappear. I was quite willing to understand that when I feel depressed I might be working on limited spoons, but issues relating to autism - well, I'm just being silly. Everyone else manages. Why can't I? Why did I need two years out of education after finishing my mandatory schooling? Why can't I manage to socialise two days in a row without huge fallout?

The joy of spending too much time on Facebook and Tumblr is you realise you're not alone, that you're not just being silly, weak, making a fuss. There are other people out there, people who have the same struggle, people who advocate for you. People who have your back.

So there I was last night sitting in a theatre watching a brilliant show. And using up spoons. I'd already used up quite a lot of spoons on anxiety through the days leading up to going out. And then when we were there, there was a lobby full of people to navigate. There goes a spoon. I had a moment with the security guard at the door who made me pour away my water, the water I always have with me, so I ended up with a bought bottle, an unfamiliar bottle with unfamiliar tasting water. That was another two spoons. I wasn't very familiar with my surroundings, although I tried to compensate by at least looking at a seating plan in advance. Another spoon. The music was loud, so loud I can't believe 'normal' people can stand it. That was a spoon gone. And there were a lot of women in the audience, a lot of women wearing perfume, deodorant, hairspray, make-up, and whatever other stinking products 'normal' people choose to put on their bodies. Another spoon gone. I was wearing 'nice' clothes, including earrings and high heels. Another spoon. The show, being Priscilla Queen of the Desert, was visually very glitzy. Mirror balls, disco lights. There's another spoon. The show was emotionally affecting. There's a big spoon right there. And I was surrounded by people for hours. People clapping, people whooping, people acting in bizarrely unpredictable ways. Dear god, people. I don't know how to handle people. That's a whole ladle.

I had an amazing, brilliant night. I'm glad I went. I would go again. But I did pretty much pick up an entire drawer full of spoons and throw them to the wind. Today I have very little left. Today I feel depressed. I feel uneasy. I feel exhausted. I don't want stimulation, I don't want chatter. I don't want to interact with people. I'm not concentrating very well. I don't have much patience. Three hours or so of fun last night is still having its repercussions almost twenty four hours later. I've never felt able to explain this to people before. How do you tell someone that yes you want to socialise with them but that you'll be dealing with the fallout for so long afterwards that you'll be pretty much useless for normal life? How do you explain that having a wonderful evening will make you feel the next day like life isn't worth living, and you'll have to spend all your time catching those nasty little intrusive thoughts before they catch hold?

But there it is. That is autism, and yes, people with autism can have a limited number of spoons, just like people with more visible issues. I wouldn't swap it for the world. I doubt most of the audience experienced the performance to anything like the depth I did. But for this, I pay. I have limited spoons, and I hope this helps you understand.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Body Positive

Something of an a epiphany came to me the other day when I watched this facebook video of a larger lass giving it her all. I'm not going to say that it will last. I'm not going to say this has restored positive body image to me for life. But it's a good thing. For a couple of days I haven't felt ugly in being fat. I've almost felt comfortable about it. I've felt happy. I still want to lose weight. I still want to be fitter. But I don't feel ugly.

Today I went swimming at the swimming pool for the first time in years. I went swimming in my two-piece and felt that I would have been happy if it were a bikini rather than a tank top that went down to my hips. Yes, I am fat, I thought. Yes, I want to lose weight. But fat can be sexy. It doesn't have to be a turn off. And this body has carried three babies to term and given birth to them. Sometimes it has a bad back and can't do much, but at other times it's incredibly strong. Yes, stretch marks are tiger stripes, and I deserve them after the pain of late pregnancy and giving birth. If someone doesn't like them, so what? Why should I spend my time covering over my flesh as if I were ashamed?

I have managed with this body all my life. Sometimes I stress eat and sometimes I just eat too much. But I've carried on through fights with stress and depression and anxiety. I've carried on through some pretty horrendous times caused by people outside my control. I've carried on bringing up three beautiful boys, one of whom is definitely and two most likely on the spectrum, and although sometimes I've lost my temper I've hugged them when they were hurt and cuddled them to sleep and read to them and educated them and taken them to beautiful places.

Does it matter if I'm fat? My children don't care. My husband finds me sexy. I'm the only one left whose opinion matters, and it's far better that I'm happy with myself than that I hate myself.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

The Avalanche

It's about seven o'clock in the evening, and we're just finishing a meal in a local restaurant - not a posh restaurant, just a generic chain food place attached to a generic chain motel. To be honest, that works in our favour. Nothing is very clean, nothing is very fancy, no one is very quiet. We jumble together at some tables in a far corner, all ten of us; our little family of five, my dad, my cousin and his family. And George has been very good all day, despite the sudden influx of new people in the house and then the strangeness of going out for a meal.

(Source: Wikimedia Commons.)
But there's a limit. There's always a limit. It starts with the boys getting little plastic projector toys from a vending machine. George decides he doesn't like his and wants a different one. He's lying on the floor in front of the machine, pushing his fingers into the holes, occasionally trying to rock it. This is probably where we should have left, but of course you don't want to leave before the meltdown. I haven't seen my cousin and family in four years. We only have this one day.

Meltdowns can be like an avalanche. You see a little snow tumbling, but you don't want to leave the slopes. You want to stay just a bit longer. You convince yourself it's safe. And then suddenly you have twenty tons of snow hurtling down the mountain. It hits. It envelopes you. There's nothing you can do but try to manage the situation.

By this point George was trying to cling onto the vending machine and screaming that he didn't want to leave. I tried to hoist him up. He's eight. He's heavy. He's preternaturally strong. I try to lift him and he either goes limp or starts kicking. People are starting to look at the screaming child. I want to stay I want to stay I want to stay I want to stay. I stay very calm. I tell him very firmly that he's not having another toy. I tell him we are leaving. I tell him he can walk or be carried. In the end he's half carried, half dragged. He tries to bite me. He tries to kick me. He tries to scratch me. I keep saying firmly, no. I have to get him through fifty metres of restaurant lined with tables, and the more people look, the more people speak, the worse it is.

I have to stop every ten metres to rest, because he is heavy, and he's fighting all the way. What are people thinking? Are they seeing a spoilt brat? Are they seeing bad parenting? I wish I had some kind of badge on my back, a universal autism sign. All I can do is be very calm and firm and try to get him out of there. I hope that in doing that not only will it help George but it will also indicate to onlookers that we're not dealing with a temperamental little brat. But I know that his screams are resonating through the entire restaurant. I know that while everyone else is just trying to eat or work, I am bringing a tornado through the place.

Finally I get him outside. I need to get him to the car, but he only has one shoe by this point, no coat, and it's raining. I'm exhausted and overwhelmed and my back hurts from dragging him through the restaurant. My husband brings the car, but of course it takes time. I briefly think how useful it would be to have a blue badge in moments like this. All the while I have a screaming, panicking, furious eight year old in my arms, and all I want to do is protect him from the world, from himself, from the stares of other people. It takes multiple goes to get him into the car, then to get his seatbelt on. I have to sit next to him to stop him taking it off. I have to stop him kicking the back of the driver's seat.

And then the sun. It's not like a sudden sunny day, but more like when the clouds start to clear after a huge downpour. It takes fifteen minutes of driving, but he starts to calm down, to stop screaming and crying. I mention how I feel like I've left something behind because I let my husband get my coat and bag. He says he left something behind that starts with 'h' and ends with 'ss.' 'Happiness.' To be honest, I'm proud of him for calming down enough to start to articulate how he feels. And I'm not stupid enough to think it's the plastic toy that did it. The avalanche had been building from the moment strangers stepped into the house, gathering momentum as we went out to a noisy, overstimulating restaurant. The murmurs had been there even before that, through his stress with school and every other tiny daily prick that builds to create a huge sore. He had been holding it together so well all day, and finally something gave. So if anyone in that restaurant saw a spoilt child screaming because he couldn't have another toy, I hope they can understand where the avalanche came from. The toy was the final snowflake that caused the slide.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

An Autistic View of Death

We’ve lost two starmen in the last twelve months. One of them I cared deeply about. One of them triggered the response that a famous name and good music does, but I can’t say I held a special place for him in my heart. So David Bowie has returned to whatever fabulous alien celestial home he came from. Leonard Nimoy has beamed up. Spock is now enjoying a drink somewhere beyond the stars with Scotty and McCoy. (And then, in the few days that I wrote this, Alan Rickman is also gone. Pictures proliferate with images of Severus Snape and the word always.)

Maybe it’s the autism in me, but whenever this kind of thing happens I just want to scream, no! They’re dead! They’re not resting in a better place. They haven’t gone on to some imaginary world based on whichever media persona we knew them by. When your dog dies it doesn’t tiptoe over a rainbow bridge, either. It’s dead. That’s the condition of being dead; there is no doing, there is no animated beyond. Cells cease to function, brainwaves stop, everything that makes a being a being is gone. It leaves behind a gaping hole in those who loved them, but that doesn’t make it less true, and stating that fact doesn’t make you love someone less, or miss them less. It’s hard not to say these things without sounding like an asshole, but you get used to that. People layer emotions onto completely unemotional statements, and that makes you an asshole.

That’s not to say I have no belief in any kind of soul, that I have no belief in the energy that makes up a being moving on to another place. I can’t prove heaven, but I can’t prove there is no heaven, either. What makes me uneasy is the way that we layer a pretence over these things that the deceased doesn’t deserve. We imagine David Bowie in a silver glitter suit with incredible make-up and platform shoes doing things beyond our ken on an alien world. We imagine Leonard Nimoy with his Star Trek uniform and his pointed ears, out there on the Starship Enterprise, able now to go about his business without all of those pesky human connections that grounded him when he was bound by Nimoy’s life. We have taken away what made up that unique person and instead we see only the fantasy of a character that they were not.

Part of what makes me uneasy about this is, I think, the autistic response to metaphors, to anything that isn’t straight speaking. I understand metaphors. I use them regularly. I don’t always say precisely what I mean. But it bugs the hell out of me if, for example, I ask someone if they want something and they reply, ‘I wouldn’t say no.’ ‘Would you say yes?’ I want to ask. Not saying no leaves a realm of possibilities that might not include yes. It bugs me even more when people pretend that death is a sleep or a trip into a better world full of glitter and unicorns.

But what really makes me uneasy is this shared fantasy. I know these kind of things are not new. For millennia people have taken solace in the idea of heaven. Saying grandma’s in heaven now is no different to imagining Bowie on an alien planet having a rock party. But Bowie becoming the starman, Nimoy transcending his earthly form to beam up to the Enterprise, are more than saying grandma’s in heaven, even if the ideas come from the same motivations, to visualise our loved ones and heroes in a better place. Grandma isn’t defined by heaven. The idea of heaven doesn’t erase every other amazing thing that grandma did. The Starman and Spock – and now Severus Snape – do that. They erase the deep, many-layered, incredible richness of a human life.

For every newspaper report and internet meme to associate Nimoy with Spock, Bowie with the Starman, Rickman with Snape, suddenly deletes every incredible detail of their lives. No childhood of scraped knees and selling papers, no early years searching for a niche, no children, grandchildren, loved ones. No quiet evenings reading books, or meals out, or gestures of kindness or moments of temper. Second upon second of a person’s life, piled up like leaves of a book, piled up into stacks so high you couldn’t comprehend them, become flattened. In our desperation to keep our heroes around, to send them to a better place, we’ve compressed them to a cartoon cut out, and I think that kills them more than anything.

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Autism, School, Empathy, and Brotherly Love

A 'floppy' time during a stressful appointment.
It was a long day for George, who’s now eight. It was his first day back in school after Christmas, and he’s adapting so badly to juniors that he only engages about 50% of the time in his lessons. Most mornings we have to physically dress him – I mean literally, put every item of clothing on him from underwear to shoes. Often he has to be carried downstairs and to the car to leave for school. Sometimes instead of being limp he’s active, and tries to hide in various places around the house to stop us making him go to school. On those kind of mornings we can be kicked, bitten, scratched, and have to man-handle him, fighting, the whole way.

This morning, though, was a floppy morning. He wouldn’t even engage with his pet rabbit. I dressed him like a doll, brushed his hair, and carried him downstairs. He didn’t have breakfast. He did walk to the car, but had to be man-handled into school.

That KFC meal, with all the spicy coating stripped off the chicken
We had a call later to say that he’d lain down on the floor in the reception area, and gone to sleep. He lay there un-reactive to anything – bells, feet tramping around him – until later he pulled himself onto the soft chairs and fell asleep there. In the afternoon he did engage more, but this isn’t the way school should be for anyone. The place is rife with stress for him. No one knows what to do to make it better, but it might come to sending him to a special school. (The problem with that, as always, is money and places.)

So as a treat after their first day back we took the kids to McDonald’s. It was George’s secret, and he was bursting with it. Of course it was too simple to go well straight off. When we got there Ben, now five, started sobbing because he wanted to go to KFC, just across the road. We explained that this was perfectly possible – he and Oscar and I could go to KFC while George and his dad went to McDonald’s. It was all fine. But Ben was still sobbing, because although he wanted to go to KFC he wanted the toy from the McDonald’s Happy Meal. He was distraught, melting down, as he does so often after school.

And then George said in a moment of beatific generosity, ‘Don’t worry. You can go to KFC and you can have the toy from my Happy Meal.’

Two in KFC, one in McDonald's across the way.
George loves his Happy Meal toys. They all do. For him to offer his sobbing five year old brother his toy is a huge act. He understood exactly why Ben was upset and wanted to fix it, and the only way to fix it was by giving up his own toy.

All of the difficulties of the day, all of the stress of thinking about him going to a 'special' school, of him having such a hard time, of trying to work out how the hell to deal with this thing, were momentarily erased in those few words.

Now tell me that people with autism don’t have empathy.