Inspirational Autistics I Have Known: Part II

In this series of posts I will be writing tributes to a number of autistic people I have known throughout my life who have inspired me in some way.

A neighbour of mine sometimes hosts parties in his back garden. They are memorable affairs, partly because of the excellent firework displays he includes at the end of the evening. On this occasion, about thirteen or fourteen years ago, there was man at one of these parties who I had never met before-and have never met since.

I don’t remember whether he was attending with friends or family. I would have placed him somewhere in his thirties. He was a tall man with red hair and a red beard, but the most striking thing about him was what he’d brought with him: a replica of Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber from the film Return of the Jedi.

It was actually a very appropriate addition to the light show. This was not some cheap toy: it was an exact copy of the weapon in the film, the hilt reproduced beautifully and the blade made from fiberglass. It made screen-accurate sounds when ignited, producing a low hum and a green glow that lit up the darkness around us.

Okay-I won’t geek out any further, I promise. The man’s name was Ridwond. A very unusual name, I thought, certainly more befitting of a space-wizard than a resident of Planet Earth. He was quietly-spoken and a little awkward, but the two of us soon started talking Star Wars, at which point I saw a different side of his personality.

It’s amazing how we autistics come out of our shells when somebody engages us in a conversation that interests us. It’s worth noting that there was something about Ridwond: he drew people to him and he made them laugh, with him and not at  him: he was a great example of how difference can be a positive trait to possess.

I later discovered (from my father who had met him before) that Ridwond lived only a few minutes from my primary school and had Aspergers. The second of those two facts did not surprise me even as a child: he was (and is) one of the most interesting adults I have ever met.

 

 

 

 

Autistics I Have Known: Part I

In this series of posts, I will be writing tributes to a number of autistic people I have known throughout my life who have inspired me in some way.

The first of these will be dedicated to one of my great friends growing up, with whom I spent a large amount of my time during primary school.

At the time neither of us knew that he was autistic. Looking back, though, it does make sense. I myself was already diagnosed at or around the time we met. I had gone through the first year of primary school being relatively lonely (not that I minded too much at that age), and it felt good to find a friend with whom I had so much in common.

For the purposes of this post, we’ll call him Matt. Matt arrived at my school during the second year and like me he seemed to have trouble making friends. Personality-wise we sometimes clashed-at that age we were both stubborn and we liked our own way-but our shared interests drew us together and kept us together.

I had recently discovered a story that was to change my life: namely The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. The film adaptations of the book were being released around the time that the book was read to me (by my father), so it was little wonder that I soon became interested in a world of elves, hobbits and Orcs. I soon shared my newfound love of this story with everybody I knew, including Matt, who quickly found himself becoming as much of a fan as I was. From then on, our games in the playground were almost exclusively ring-themed.

It didn’t seem strange to us then that we should delve into our games with such attention to detail and enthusiasm: nor did we seem to notice (or care) that the people who joined our games briefly soon moved on to pursue other interests and play other games.

Of course, it is now clear to me that the two of us were experiencing what is known as a ‘special interest’ among the autism and Aspergers communities. It was nonetheless a key part of our relationship and I have found that shared interests over the years have been a good starting point in conversation leading to numerous friendships with both autistics and non-autistics.

Growing up, both Matt and I struggled to make friends (although he seems to have become far more socially confident as a young adult) and I was truly devastated when he moved schools a couple of years later. When we talked online a year or so ago Matt revealed to me that he had recently been diagnosed with autism (in his early twenties) which certainly surprised me at the time, but less so after I considered things more deeply.

 

 

How do you pursue excellence? The Importance of Discipline

This is a question that I often ask myself. The answer isn’t easily definable because in order to pursue excellence you must first work on yourself and your attitudes regarding life and success. In other words, you must learn to be the best version of yourself.

Arguably the key to achieving this, as I am discovering, is that you must develop a strong sense of self-discipline. Disciplined people work more efficiently because they set themselves goals which are often challenging, goals which require focus and do not allow time for distraction.

I believe that motivation can be enhanced by hard work, and that it is not an inborn trait to possess or lack motivation. Once again, it all comes down to discipline. It is immensely difficult to achieve any kind of long-term goal if you are not sanctioning yourself for idleness along the way, but you must also learn how and when to reward yourself.

Human beings are just like any other animal in the respect that our brains work in reward-based pathways. Think of a dog when he learns a new trick. He understands (because his owner makes it clear) that if he is obedient and learns the trick, he will be rewarded both with praise and also possibly with food. Humans are no different-so set yourself a task and reward yourself upon completion, but only reward yourself if you complete the task (and complete it well).

You will take a different attitude to your work if you decide to do this. I’m talking largely about completing your own tasks, and not about working for others. Know how to reward yourself and when, and know how to tier your rewards. What kind of reward do you deserve based on the work that you have done? Is it something as simple as a cup of coffee, or is it that new game you wanted to buy? Is it an extra hour in bed, or is it a drink at the pub with some friends?

Reward yourself accordingly, but do not become complacent. As humans we often allow ourselves to slack after one success upon receiving our rewards, and therefore we do not continue to repeat our successes and our work gradually becomes sloppier as the discipline is forgotten. So it is also important to find new ways to discipline yourself when the old techniques start to fail, in order to keep yourself working at your best and reaching new levels of achievement.

One last tip before I go: wake up early. The earlier you are awake, the more work you will get done. You will start the day with a sense of achievement which will accompany you throughout the day. By the time most other people wake up, you will have already achieved a huge amount and will be ahead of the game. Starting earlier also means that you can finish earlier if you so wish, but I’ll leave that up to you.

Keep going, and have a great day!

 

Your Failures Do NOT Define You

Your failures do NOT define you. Please understand this. You’ll thank me for it.

If you beat yourself internally for the mistakes you make, you will invite nothing but negativity into your life. You must learn to accept yourself, for all your flaws and qualities. Everything you do (or don’t do) depends on your state of mind. If you can eliminate negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones, you will be on the road to success.

When you learned how to ride a bike, you didn’t give up the first time you fell off. You kept going. Sometimes you have to make the same mistake many times before you can truly learn. You can make mistakes for years without realising what you’re doing wrong. Sometimes all you need is the right outside perspective. The wrong perspective, whether it’s your own negativity or somebody else’s, can hamper you to no end.

There are few mentors in this world that will guide you as failure does. Failure will make you learn the hard way. It will beat you down, take you by surprise and shake your life to its foundations; but because it makes no apologies for crashing your party, it teaches you how to stand on your own two feet in a world that will continually try to challenge you. Embrace failure and laugh in its face: then the last laugh will always be yours.

 

Optimizing Sleep: An Experiment

I’ve always been sceptical about ‘advice’ when it comes to sleeping. Very few prescribed methods have worked for me. As much as I love the smell of Lavender on my pillow, it doesn’t help me get to sleep at all!

I have struggled with sleeping throughout my life. The father of my childhood friend is an osteopath, and when he lived nearby I found myself going to him for cranial massages. It was one of the few times in my life when I was able to experience good sleep on a regular basis. Alas! My friend and his father moved away. I couldn’t afford to pay for sessions with an osteopath (I had been lucky enough to have sessions with my friend’s father for free!), and so old habits fell back into place.

My sleep has been further compromised by Anxiety over the years. The root cause of my problem is an overactive imagination that is difficult to shut down. Like a lot of people on the autism spectrum, I have my own ‘world’ inside my head. Whilst being a fantasist is a huge part of who I am – and while it brings me a lot of pleasure – it does hinder me when it comes to nodding off. I think that my body has, over time, adjusted to my inability to sleep for long periods. As such, I ‘get by’ on a daily basis having had very little sleep.

But this week I have taken a stand. I have:

  • Stopped watching television and using the computer before bed
  • Gone to bed an hour earlier
  • Stopped reading before bed (a big sacrifice for me, but reading keeps my mind active)
  • Reduced any other external stimuli that might cause my mind to remain active (e.g. excessive socializing or being around bright lights)

 

The results are palpable. Already I feel more focused, calmer and less anxious. I’m less forgetful, less easily distracted and more capable of completing tasks in an orderly, logical manner. Even when I haven’t slept for long periods, I have still gotten out of bed the next day feeling well-rested (due to having spent more time in bed, feeling relaxed both mentally and physically). My mind, no longer racing at two hundred miles an hour, has settled down into what I call ‘standby mode’.

This is all part of my self-improvement plan for my twenty-third year. I know that if I can crack my sleep problem, I will be able to optimize the capability of both my mind and body by a thousand percent.

 

 

When the Devil Came Knocking: Anxiety and Time

This time last year I found myself in a serious crisis. I had absolutely no idea how to fight back.

I guess what began it all was leaving university. I was no longer certain that acting was what I wanted to do, but I sure as hell didn’t want one of those soulless ‘proper jobs’ either. Writing was my twin talent, so I thought that perhaps I could nurture that-but I had no plans as to how and doubted my abilities. I knew I needed to earn money in the meantime and so looked for menial jobs. At that stage I felt completely unemployable; nobody wanted me. All of my applications were either rejected or ignored. Eventually, I did find a job…which I loathed with every ounce of my being.

I felt totally stuck and uncertain about my future. I’ve often heard Anxiety described as ‘a fear of the future’ and this indeed was how I felt when the devil came knocking. I capitalize Anxiety because it is a recognised disorder, different from just feeling some ‘anxiety’ as a one-off. I had had run-ins with Anxiety in the past, but it soon became clear that this time things were different. Like a virus, it had somehow become stronger. The feeling of fear pervaded into every aspect of my life and quickly came to inhabit my thoughts. As an introvert, I have always needed a reasonable amount of time alone, but now I found myself spending the majority of my life away from other people. I became irritable, indecisive and forgetful.

I couldn’t seek counselling because counsellors require money. I had no job and so, therefore, had no money. The free ‘Let’s Talk’ service offered to me by the NHS put me on a waiting list, but they took so long to get back to me that I would have likely died in the meantime had my problem been serious enough. My parents weren’t able to truly understand what was happening to me because, much like Autism, Anxiety is an invisible disorder and I had no diagnosis as such. I found it hard to explain how I felt and why I felt the way I did.

Then came the worst part: the Anxiety became so dominant that it began to manifest itself as physical pain. I began to experience a gnawing pain in my chest on a daily basis, often without relent throughout each and every day. My panicked mind’s first thought was “HEART ATTACK!”

I found myself frequently visiting the doctor and becoming a hypochondriac, something I had absolutely never been before. On the rare occasions when I didn’t feel anxious, I would become aware that I was feeling relaxed and the Anxiety would kick in again. It didn’t allow me to relax. I spent eight months in flight mode, barely functioning as a human being.

To quote Yoda, fear leads to anger. In my case that is certainly true. I quickly began to question why this was happening to me. When I couldn’t find a way to get better and everything felt futile, I would fly into rages. I deliberately shut myself away from my friends because I needed to be alone. At that stage I barely wanted to know myself, let alone force this new Joe upon anybody else.

The trauma I was facing was blissfully ignored by the rest of the world because it was mostly invisible. I knew I had to force change. I was beginning to exhibit symptoms of Depression. The two often go hand-in-hand. In the end, I spent half a year on happy pills, not to treat Depression but to treat and calm the Anxiety that had become serious enough to warrant prescribed medication. I don’t know whether the pills actually worked or not, but I believed that they would and that perhaps had something to do with my recovery. The other key ingredient to my salvation was time. My body and mind needed time to deal with the Anxiety, much in the way that a computer needs time to upload new information.

I also changed my mentality. I forced myself to be productive and actively invited positivity into my life. My productivity as a writer had stalled indefinitely because I had become incapable of seeing anything through, always criticizing myself and feeling mentally drained before I had even begun my work. But I kicked back and eventually the wall barring my way was broken. That’s not to say that I’m free of it entirely, but I have made significant progress and now rarely experience the pain that had caused me so much distress.

Finally, and perhaps most crucially, I allowed myself to get away for a while. It took a lot a lot of forward planning and preparation financially, but I did it. In the end it took a trip to New Zealand to help me to let go, and to remind me that life is, after all, worth living.

Peace and love,

Joe