Tuesday, 2 April 2019

Autism Awareness Day

Today is National Autism Awareness Day and, in spite of the current lack of time and care I am giving to the blogs, this is one thing I simply cannot miss. 

My interest in Autism Spectrum Conditions (ASC) started, bizarrely, at an early age. I have always been fascinated by the human brain and how one, ugly mass of unidentifiable 'stuff' can cause us to think and behave so, incredibly differently. The idea that colour, sound, taste and smell do not, really, exist outside of our brains and do not, therefore, really exist at all is enough to amuse me for hours. From a psychological perspective, ASC is particularly interesting, and so, one nerdy little book about ASC led to another and soon, I had sufficient brain fuel to lecture just about everyone I knew on the magic of the spectrum. 

The problem is, ASC is not just something in a book: something to be studied and analysed. It is a real life condition that, for some, can make daily functioning incredibly difficult. It is a way of experiencing the world, characterized by a distinct way of thinking and processing information that can, in many cases, lead to behaviours deemed to be 'outside of the norm'.

And it is that last bit that I most want to talk about - the thing of which I think people need to be most aware. Over time, my knowledge and understanding of ASC has progressed from going beyond the mere contents of books to my own, personal experiences. I have seen more than one person discover, for themselves, that they are autistic, having spent their entire lives finding life harder than most and, in some cases, tripping in and out of CAMHs with no answers as to why they can't just be happy. I've watched people I care about go through true Hell, all the while wondering at just what point it is both safe and acceptable to suggest that maybe their brain is wired just a little differently and I've seen people be referred to as 'weird' when, clearly, there is something a little more intrinsic going on. 

Most importantly, I have come to recognise that ASC is not an obvious condition. Sure, it can be non-verbal, aggressive and complex with high sensory needs and next to no receptive language but it can also be subtle - sometimes, even, invisible. It is not just a set of behaviours: it is a way of thinking and not one of us can be so arrogant as to assume that we know what everyone is thinking all of the time. The fact that someone behaves in ways that we deem to be 'normal' does not mean that they are thinking the same things as everyone else. If we assume that people understand every situation in the same way as us, we risk isolating them behind a wall of confusion and fear that, over-time, builds up to a really very unpleasant experience of the world. 

Many people, professionals and ordinary members of the public, are gaining an increasing awareness of ASC, its existence, its traits and its prevalence. But what many people are failing to realise is that ASC does not, necessarily, look or behave in a certain way and that, no matter how 'normal' someone seems, their thoughts and mental processes are what truly dictates whether or not they are on the spectrum. It is, therefore, impossible to know if someone is autistic unless we have a really deep, honest understanding of what goes on in their head. 

This is important for so many reasons. In the first instance, so many people, in schools especially, aim to 'support' those with ASC by simply trying to normalise them. They identify the behaviour that does not fit in with everyone else and they do what they can to change this. But, if the workings of the mind remain the same, no good can come from forcing someone to eat with their food touching or making someone take on more information in a shorter space of time: the forced behavioural changes can only lead to further distress. 

Secondly, when it is suggested that a child or individual may be on the spectrum, many parents react with outrage, greatly and severely offended by the suggestion. This is not only deeply, deeply offensive to many of those who treat their Autism as an integral part of their identity - and an impressive strength - but is completely unreasonable: your child does not have to be non-verbal or display extreme behaviour in order to be on the spectrum. 

More importantly, we seem to have a genuine fear in our society of 'labeling' people. Even when professionals are entirely certain that a child is on the spectrum, there is a clear reluctance from multiple agencies, and parents, to pursue assessment because the outcome is deemed to be a red-card label. Whilst I would not be so ignorant as to assume that I can speak for the entire autistic population, I can say with certainty that everyone that I know, have met, spoken to, listened to or read who has been diagnosed with Autism completely disagrees. 

For someone who cannot explain the way they think, who does not understand why they find daily functioning so difficult or knows that they are different but cannot identify how or why, the word Autism is not a label: it is an explanation. It is an identity, a reason and, for some, a personal justification. It is the reason to be a little more patient with oneself and a means of explaining to others how an individual's needs might be slightly different to those of others. It is not a debilitating diagnosis but a key, unlocking the door so self-understanding and, when needed, resources and help.

To know that Autism exists is great. To know what it means, what's involved and what we can do to help is even better. But awareness extends far beyond mere knowledge: to make a truly inclusive society, we need to understand just how subtle Autism can be and, most importantly of all, accept and respect it. 

Find out more about Autism here

Friday, 21 December 2018

Places to Turn - Countdown to Christmas

For some, Christmas is spent with more family than we seem to have throughout the rest of the year. For others, it is a time of extreme loneliness, exacerbated by the fact that everyone else has somewhere better to be. In all this, though, it is important to remember that there is always somewhere to turn when we feel like dung. People we know, people that we do not: over the phone, a screen or even in person, there is always somebody who can listen and help. 

British people are morons. We are so obsessed with maintaining that stiff upper-lip that we refuse to share even an inkling of how we feel. Inevitably, this never works out in the way that we'd hope, either resulting in an eventual eruption or us falling so far down the pan that it is almost impossible for us to clamber back up again. We convince ourselves that talking is pointless, that noone cares or that nothing anyone could possibly say will make a difference, but thinking in this way only serves as an offence to those who do care and would really appreciate a chance to try. 

The fact is, whoever you are and whatever you are going through, noone is so special that they are beyond help. And so, now seems like a good time to remind everyone that the Useful Websites section on this blog will take you to a handful of people with a whole lotta love. 

Being alone, being private and, even, being silent are rights that we are all entitled but suffering alone serves noone. There is always - always - a place to turn.

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

A Reflection - Countdown to Christmas

As Christmas draws closer, so, too does the end of another year. In the midst of a drunken oblivion, we find ourselves reflecting on the dozen months that have passed since the last hangover of this scale, reveling in our achievements and promising ourselves that the subsequent year will be even better. 

Or at least, that's how it would be, were humans not so darn self-critical. Whilst I love Christmas, I hate, hate, hate New Year. As a die-hard worshiper of the H20, I remain sober for the entire affair and, in true Emma-fashion, take self-reflection and analysis to a supreme level. I look at my already minuscule list of underwhelming achievements with disdain, skillfully tearing each one to shreds until I am perfectly satisfied that, yet again, I have bummed away another year. This conclusion is followed by a solid month of internal depression, misery and self-loathing, in which I question my every decision, wondering just how I came to be so crap at life.

Image sourced from here.

January is closely followed by 28 days of unforgiving ambition. I religiously open the workout app every, single day and beat my muscles into some form of submission; I sit at my laptop till my eyes turn square, barraging out every word I can think of and I check every job site daily, desperately searching for something fulfilling. 

Inevitably, I soon run out of steam and, one-by-one, life settles back down into the same, monotonous drudge of the previous year. 

Yet, in all this, I miss some very important things: big things, and small, that are worthy of at least my own recognition. For, whilst I have not changed the world, doubled my muscle mass or written a world-class novel, my year has not been void of achievement.

I qualified as a teaching assistant. Sure, it wasn't exactly rocket science but I am still more employable now than I was a year ago. My guitar teaching business has doubled in size, not because of advertising but because my students actually like me enough to share the word. In the latter half of the year, I started to allow myself to socialise again and, whilst I'm still no party animal, I am beginning to resemble less of a recluse. I am nearly finished with the final year of my degree and, pointless though it may have been, the effort it has taken is supreme. I bought a car, which would not be considered noteworthy were it not for the fact that I can barely bring myself to spend 10p, never mind that much money on something that, 2 years ago, it looked like I would never need because I REALLY CAN'T DRIVE! 

Yes, my colleagues still think I am a brain-dead twelve year-old but I've started to find my own ways around that. Yes, I generally suck at blogging but I am, slowly, finding my writer's feet again. And yes, I am still a tiny bundle of chaos but I've learnt to walk in heels so I'm working on at least one part of that. 

With the exception of a select few super-humans, most people's achievements pale in comparison to their ambitions. But, at this time of year and every other, we would all do well to remember that the little things, the things that noone else knows or would ever consider relevant: sometimes, they are our biggest achievements and we deserve to celebrate them. 

I do not know what the new year will bring but, it seems, this year wasn't too shabby after all. 

Monday, 17 December 2018

A Christmas Reminder - Countdown to Christmas

Tis' the time of year for cheer and goodwill, for time spent with friends and loved ones and more sparkle than Louie Spence's closet. It's an entire month of indigestion and hangovers and the best thing about it is that, somehow, Christmas makes both of these things okay. The festive season appeals to people from all walks of life and, for that, it is truly wonderful.

Except, really, it isn't. When written in purely objective terms, Christmas has the potential to sound like the dregs of Hell. 

It is a pressure to spend more than most can afford, the stress of finding the right gifts and the guilt that accompanies the polite smile and the "Why would they give me that?". It is endless hours of intense socialization in loud, bright, busy environments where everyone is just a little too drunk for their own good. It is the expectation that people will eat themselves into oblivion, accompanied by a quiet dread of the dieting and extreme exercise regimes that January brings. More than anything, it is the clear social understanding that, one way or another, Christmas has to be perfect, in body and in spirit, and, for many, that is quite simply more than they can take. 

Image sourced from here.

This, I know, is something that I blog about every year and am unapologetic in doing so. The fact is, for some, Christmas is really, really hard and, for all the wonderful things that it brings, there is always an underlying sense that people should be happy. This unrealistic expectation is as ridiculous as demanding that a cancer patient should somehow lose their cancer for the sake of December. Depression, anxiety, eating disorders, personality disorders: they don't run away at the first sight of tinsel. Christmas or not, once they're here, they are usually here to stay. 

This is not to say that someone with a mental illness cannot possibly enjoy any part of Christmas. In fact, it can be dreadful with or without illness. Equally, it can be a rare time in which people actually have a brief respite from feeling crap. It is just important to recognise that, for all the adverts and romanticized movies telling us that Christmas is the bee's knees, it is perfectly acceptable to be something less than okay at this time of year. 

A little more awareness on all our parts would serve us well. If you know someone with an eating disorder, do not expect that they will eat a full Christmas dinner just because of the date. Sure, they might. They might decide that this is something that they deserve and they should be damn proud if they do. But the gremlin in their head might be just as loud on the 25th as it is on any other day and external pressures to eat, eat, eat are both insensitive and unhelpful.

For someone who does not wish to be alive, Christmas can, in some cases, make the feeling worse, not better. Being surrounded by ridiculously happy people and feeling the same as you always do is desperately isolating, making the individual feel even further detached from the life they have already come to reject. This does not mean that the people around them should act miserable to keep them company but does solicit a certain degree of empathy. Certainly, demanding that someone act happy to avoid killing the mood only serves to make them less likely to share how they truly feel, increasing the probability of a mental health crisis.

And then there are those with severe anxiety. Those who feel themselves internally erupting at just the thought of being surrounded by people, who dread the endless noise of the festivities and find themselves suffocating in the overwhelming crush of everything that is Christmas. If someone turns down an invitation to a Christmas do or chooses to sneak out the door a little early, please do not refer to them as boring, anti-social or any other label you can think to impose, be it in jest or devout severity. For some, just walking out the front door is an agonizing feat. Knowing what constitutes 'too much' is an essential act of self-care made all the more effective when it is greeted with compassion. 

Christmas is, genuinely, a lovely time of year. The fact that some people struggle to cope should not change that for those who enjoy it. But, in the midst of all our frivolities, it is crucial that we all demonstrate at least an awareness of what could be going on around us for, the happier an occasion seems, the higher the expectation that those who are not okay smile regardless. This is the dangerous part for, the more a person hides, the harder it is to offer them help when they need it most. 

It is always okay to not be okay, Christmas or not. In the season of goodwill, we can all do our bit to ensure that those who need it most are welcomed into our lives, not as they should be, but as they truly are.