The Social and Emotional Experience of Going ‘Unplugged’ for Two Weeks

A few years back I had the opportunity to go ‘unplugged’ for two weeks: that is to say that I found myself on holiday in Cornwall, staying in a beautiful little apartment right next to the village pub in Polperro, a perfect getaway with 10 out of 10 views across the harbour. The only thing it lacked was-you guessed it-phone signal.

Of course, there were plenty of other ways for me to get online if I had really wanted to; but I was intrigued, perhaps even a little excited – about delving into two weeks without being answerable to the wider world that the web puts you into regular contact with.

If you don’t have a Facebook account you are considered by many to be a hermit in this day and age. I was certainly enjoying the new-found freedom. I found that my social life and relations with my family improved to no end without the influence of the internet and social media to otherwise distract me from the rest of daily life. Granted, we were on holiday, which added to the sense of relaxation.

To begin with, the nagging impulse inbuilt within my brain kept reminding me that I should be checking my phone and laptop. Surely somebody must have sent me an urgent message that required my immediate attention? As I later found out, during the two weeks I had been away I had received around 50+ notifications from Facebook, several private messages and upwards of 100 emails.

How many of these notifications were essential ‘must-reads’?

I would say less than 5%, perhaps even as low as 2%.

Doubtless, your own results, if you were to undertake this social experiment, would be different. During this period I used the phone only as a time-telling device. I would have used it to take calls, but I don’t think I received any even when outside the apartment.

The experience freed me, albeit temporarily, from what often feels like an unfortunate compulsion. The effects were evident for many weeks afterwards, seeing how little time I spent on social media until old habits crept back in and I found myself fully ‘plugged in’ again.

How my Autism Affects Me

I feel as if I say this until I am blue in the face, but it’s worth repeating: autism does not have a ‘look’ and is an invisible condition. Not everybody on the spectrum shares the same traits and none of these signs on their own can offer conclusive evidence that somebody is autistic. Nevertheless, there are a number of telltale signs that may indicate whether somebody is on the spectrum.

Some of these ‘classic’ signs include:

  • Difficulty interpreting social situations (both verbal and non-verbal communication), e.g. inability to detect jokes, sarcasm, meaning behind facial expressions and tone of voice etc
  • Not expressing emotion through the face or voice-speaking in ‘monotone’
  • May either be verbal or non-verbal. Some people on the spectrum may not speak at all or may only speak very little. Others may speak very clearly (and maybe over-elaborately) but nonetheless will struggle to pick up on many of the social cues taken for granted by neurotypical (non-autistic) individuals.
  • Appearing to be insensitive or uncaring, rarely going to others for comfort and preferring to retreat into their own space when feeling overwhelmed socially, spending a large amount of time alone and behaving in ways that others might find strange or immature (another post in and of itself)
  • Repetitive behavioural patterns such as always following the same exact daily routine (eating the same food each day for example)
  • Trouble grasping practical, motor-related procedures, e.g. working a machine or tying shoelaces
  • A difficulty with accepting changes to a routine
  • Highly focused interests that often become obsessive, sometimes obscure in nature
  • Over-sensitivity or under-sensitivity to sounds, touch, smell, tastes and so on, sometimes leading to anxiety or bodily pain

Everybody’s autism is different. For example, somebody with low-functioning autism could (or could not) be a person who barely speaks at all, doesn’t regularly show any clear emotion through their face or speech, and is upset enough by a change to their routine that it leads to a meltdown, by which I mean a sensory overload which causes something akin to what a neurotypical person might experience with a panic attack. They could struggle with numerous motor-related tasks to the point where they may need a carer to look after them on a daily basis. Like I said, that is an example. Nobody, whether high or low-functioning, possesses the exact same set of traits.

For more info on the difference between high and low-functioning autism, I recommend this article here:

https://www.verywellhealth.com/high-and-low-functioning-autism-260599

Let’s now give a profile of me and how I’m affected by autism according to the points I laid out above. Specifically, I have a form of autism known as Aspergers so I will refer to my condition as both autism and Aspergers below.

Generally speaking, I come across as a polite, well-spoken man. I have an excellent (in my case above average) knowledge of language and words. Growing up I sometimes spoke over-elaborately, using complex, unusual words in conversation simply because I knew them, without giving any thought to whether they were appropriate to use in that situation. Nevertheless, I do not pick up on many of the social cues that others take for granted. Internally I often feel uncomfortable in social situations, particularly ones that involve large groups of people, but these symptoms rarely manifest themselves in an obvious physical way beyond me ‘shutting down’ and keeping to myself. It may take me longer to realize that somebody is making a joke or being sarcastic for example. It is also worth noting that my condition (at least in my case) renders me totally incapable of being able to determine whether another person is interested in me romantically. I will not pick up on the body language or social cues that indicate attraction. Therefore the unspoken rules of flirting are totally lost on me. The only way I can possibly know if somebody is interested in me is if they tell me so outright.

I have a good understanding of facial and vocal expressions which is a trait that many with the condition do not possess. On occasion, I may appear to be insensitive as I do not always consider the effects that my words or lack of empathy have on other people. This is somewhat remedied by the fact that I am quick to offer comfort once I realize somebody has been upset by me or is otherwise distressed.

With or without the Aspergers, I am an introvert by nature. I honestly think that is part of me regardless of being autistic, though no doubt enhanced because of it. I spend the majority of my time alone following solitary pursuits such as reading or writing. I will happily go out on my own to engage in activities others would see as social events, such as going to the cinema to see a film. Whilst I have only a few close friends, they are all people who I trust completely and feel totally comfortable with. My policy with friends has always been quality over quantity, and I rarely exhibit too many of my classic autism traits when in the company of the people I feel secure with. In my case, anxiety definitely brings a lot of my autistic traits to the surface. If I am doing something practical and I know somebody is watching me, I will find the task much harder. This may not seem too unusual until you realize that my autism puts me at an inherent disadvantage when it comes to carrying out motor-related tasks.

I have always had difficulty grasping many practical things that others find easy. For the most part, I am capable of completing the majority of daily tasks without much trouble: things like cooking, driving, doing housework etc. Other things pose much a greater challenge. It took me many years, for example, before I could tie my shoelaces without help. Putting together something from scratch (like a kit lawnmower) is my idea of hell on earth. My hand-eye coordination is undeveloped in comparison to others of my age. Sometimes I may approach practical tasks in a manner that appears illogical to non-autistic people, because of the different way in which my brain functions. Often I still get the task done to the same standard, however, which is why I often become annoyed when others try to ‘correct’ my way of doing things. It is not necessarily right or wrong, just different.

Whilst routine is important to me, I do not need to follow a rigid unwavering pattern. Big changes to my established routine are certainly jarring to me and often require a bit of preparation on my part. I will never like the concept of change, but I’m perhaps more accepting of it than others on the spectrum.

As some people will know, I have a number of highly intense interests (sometimes obscure ones) that I pursue with great passion. Sometimes these interests can become all-consuming. Some of them are only temporary interests whilst others have been ongoing throughout my life. Growing up as a child, some of the things that became obsessive interests included church clocks, bird-watching, elephants and mammoths, military vehicles and films such as The Jungle Book, Ice Age and the Star Wars saga. My interest in Tolkien and his fictional world of Middle-earth has been a lifelong interest that has retained its intensity throughout the years and into the present. I am a powerhouse of knowledge on the subject (if I do say so myself). The one part of my life’s routine that is truly repetitive in the autistic sense is that I keep returning to these interests and in doing so often fail to ‘widen my horizons’ as non-autistic do when they explore new areas of interest. I regularly listen to the same music to the exclusion of everything else, for example.

Although I had sensory issues with food growing up and deliberately avoided trying anything new, this has become much less of a problem as I have aged. I don’t tend to initiate physical contact (e.g. a hug) with another person unless I am very close to them. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I don’t enjoy it, however. In all likelihood, this stems more from a lack of confidence than from my Aspergers. Not reading social cues clearly doesn’t help, which is why I generally leave it to others to initiate that kind of thing with me if they want to. Loud noises or any noise that is particularly unexpected can sometimes unnerve me, though this wouldn’t necessarily be obvious to anyone else. During the days of my church clock obsession, this happened regularly: having waited around for anywhere up to an hour for the bells to chime I would suddenly get nervous during the last few minutes of waiting. It was the anticipation of the noise, not the noise itself, which caused my nervous reaction. I don’t recall ever having any sensory issues involving smell, colours, lights or anything else.

There are also a number of positive traits I have inherited as a direct result of my autism. By and large, I think the positive traits outweigh any difficulties that autism has caused me; but that’s for another post, in future.

Joe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The First Time I Witnessed an Autistic Meltdown

I was probably about fourteen by the time I witnessed a serious autistic meltdown. That might sound strange, seeing as I’m on the spectrum myself, until you realize that my condition is very high-functioning, meaning (in my case) that I appear to exhibit less signs of my condition than somebody who is low-functioning.

It was at secondary school, then, that I met the first person I had ever known who was outwardly autistic. Autism is an invisible condition and it does not have a ‘look’, nor does everybody on the spectrum share the same traits. Nevertheless this individual displayed a number of the telltale signs that indicated he was on the spectrum: he spent almost all of his free time alone, spoke in a very monotone voice and had a number of unusual, often obsessive interests that some might consider offbeat or even immature. I noticed this, and, needless to say, less sympathetic individuals noticed it too.

I will always remember the day it happened. It was the height of summer, the last day of term before the holidays. The school bus was packed; everybody was going home and many of them were bringing their friends home too.

I don’t know why the young man in question was late to the bus, but unfortunately for him, he was. He always sat alone on the bus in a seat by the window and didn’t like it when somebody sat in the seat next to him. That, I now realize, was his routine. Following exactly the same established routine on a daily basis is often crucial for those on the spectrum. It is necessary for them if they are to feel comfortable.

Sometimes I would sit next to the young man in question and talk to him because I recognized a kindred spirit. I also wanted to show him that I cared, as few others ever seemed to talk to him. I never discussed autism with him, or anything else that I thought might distress him; we only talked about the things I knew he was interested in. I always got the feeling, however, that he would have preferred to be left alone and I respected that.

Back to the day it happened. On this particular occasion all the window seats were taken, meaning that the only available ones were end seats next to other people. I remember feeling uncomfortable myself whenever I had to ask somebody if the seat next to them was free and whether I could sit there. It literally made my skin crawl. I could see from the moment he stepped onto the bus that he was intimidated by the mass of people and the lack of seats. I would have offered him a place if I myself had not been sitting next to somebody else (and a stranger at that).

Eventually, thank heavens, somebody did offer him a place; but that was after the meltdown.

Yes, he had a meltdown. It was a big one.

It was as if he were a kettle waiting to boil, or a volcano building in pressure before an eruption. His whole body started to shake and he stood rooted to the spot. Soon the nerves were replaced by anger and he began to wail furiously, again and again. By the time he had finished it was as if minutes had passed, though in fact the whole incident was over in the space of around thirty seconds.

Throughout, I had sat there with my head in my hands, waiting for it to end. Everybody else, almost without exception, drowned the poor boy in a chorus of laughter. I’m ashamed to say that I did nothing, worried about what would happen to me if I spoke up. I also knew that speaking to him about what happened would probably upset him further; I hope that in some way I am giving something back to others on the spectrum in the form of this blog.

Be like Neo. Find the Matrix

Be like Neo in The Matrix.

You’re probably wondering what I’m on about or perhaps even what drugs I have been taking; but I assure you that I’m clean.

For those of you who have seen The Matrix, cast your mind back to the scene where Neo first meets Trinity and remember what she says to him: “I know what you’ve been doing. I know why you hardly sleep, why you live alone and why night after night you sit at your computer. I know because I was once looking for the same thing.”

If you’re in the know, you’ll also remember that Neo has to go out and find The Matrix. It doesn’t just come to him. Therein lies my point.

Like Neo, I made all the same mistakes. I kept myself awake all night unable to sleep because of the stress I was facing internally. I locked myself away and stared at a computer screen. Before long countless hours and days were wasted. I had lost my sense of purpose and was desperately seeking answers. What I eventually discovered was that, all-knowing as it may seem to be, the Internet does not hold all the answers to life’s secrets.

If you seek opportunities only over a computer screen you will likely be very disappointed. Opportunities start with people. The internet may be a means of connecting people, but it is still important to go out and meet others face to face.

I’m an introvert and I crave alone time. Without it I can become quite savage. Nonetheless social interaction is important. Shutting myself away had an impact on my relationships with both family and friends. I spent the time seeking opportunities and jobs, when I could face it. The rest of the time was spent drowning myself with procrastination. Underneath it I was very, very unhappy.
Your Matrix is out there, whatever it is: the thing that will open your eyes and help you live life to your full potential. Your Matrix might simply be acquiring a new attitude toward life, which was the case for me. It might be the right job, a new friendship or romance, and anything else in between. But you can’t wait for it to come to you. So go out there and get it.

Celebrate how far you’ve come, not how far you’ve got to go

‘I give up’.

The three most fatal words in the English language.

When you give up, there is nothing anybody can do to help you. Most importantly however there is nothing that you can do to help yourself unless you make a concerted, conscious effort to get out of the rut. I know this to be true because I am no stranger to feelings of doubt and extreme anxiety. Anxiety is healthy but only in small amounts, and can soon lead to negativity. Negativity will grind you down. If it becomes excessive it can cause untold destruction in your life.

Now I am back on track, but there’s still work to be done.
Instead of focusing on the wrong things you’ve done, focus on celebrating the things you have achieved. These things don’t necessarily have to be black and white ‘good’ or ‘bad’ choices. There are many reasons why you may or may not do something. Everybody makes mistakes. To quote a fellow YouTuber for whom I have a great respect: “The only real mistakes in life are the ones that you don’t learn from.”

Here’s a personal example. This year I acted on something which had consequences, but I nevertheless believe that I made the right decision. I got rid of the job I hated knowing that I would have to find new ways of making ends meet quickly. Though it made things a little harder temporarily, it was the step in the right direction as far as my emotional well-being was concerned. Sometimes risks need to be taken in pursuit of a better future and a better you.

I now have a job that I truly love. Whilst it’s only a small job at present it is also one that I hope may lead to future opportunities. I am actively seeking to move myself towards the places I want to be in life whilst moving away from the places I don’t want to be. Nobody wants to feel stuck.

Autism and Taste: How has your Palette Changed?

I think it’s fair to say that everybody’s tastes in food can change over the years. If you are autistic or have Aspergers however, you may be incredibly particular about your food and have very firm opinions about what you will and won’t eat. The reason for this is largely to do with the way our minds work when it comes to processing sensory stimuli.

Throughout my childhood my tastes were incredibly rigid. Trying new things was almost out of the question. Only very occasionally could I be convinced by my parents to branch out and sample something different. Even then, it took a lot of effort for them to persuade me.

Fruit, for example, was certainly not on the cards. Neither were most types of vegetables with the exceptions of carrots and broccoli. I never really considered what might be on the horizon when it came to new things. I didn’t consider which foods were healthy and which ones were not, but I think any child can be excused for that.

I remember on one occasion, aged about eight, when my lack of interest in different foods really became apparent to me (maybe for the first time). I was staying in the house of a close friend who I visited regularly at that time. Whilst we were playing video games in his room that night, his mum came in and said that we’d be having fish and chips for dinner. I had started to notice that we always seemed to have chips when I came round to stay, and when I innocently asked why this was his mum replied: “I don’t really know what else you eat.”
I also clearly remember the time when my granddad told me that “You don’t know what you’re missing!” when I repeatedly refused to try strawberries. He was, of course, right.

These days there is very little that I won’t eat, aside from foods that I’m allergic to. Whilst there are still some things that I absolutely will not touch (you’d be hard-pressed to get me near to an olive or an avocado, for instance), I have without doubt become far more adventurous when it comes to food.
I guess I just needed a little more time.

How have your tastes changed over the years? Whether you’re autistic or not, comment below! Let’s get a community going.

Take enough small steps and you will make a giant leap.

“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Have you ever looked at your goals in terms of leaps and steps? Maybe you should.

Most dreams in life, no matter how big or small, have to be worked for. Luck or whatever you want to call it, along with other factors out of your control, play a part. But hard work reaps its own rewards.

Let’s say that you wanted to become an actor. Well, that’s not going to happen overnight. You have to take small steps toward getting there. Attend acting classes. Study great actors. Make as many connections as possible and keep up to date with everything going on in the industry. With enough small steps, you might take a giant leap and get your first break.

This example can be applied to any number of circumstances. With any leap, there’s usually a risk involved, even if that risk is only a substantial portion of time and money invested.

When planning to put together a blog, I didn’t just leap into it. I have done that before and learned from it. Rather, I spent a number of months preparing for it. I made steps each day towards making it happen, whether that daily activity was preparing a post (ie committing an idea to paper), doing research into setting up a blog or all manner of other things. Ideas need momentum if they are ever to become something more than just a thought.

Dropping the A-Bomb: My personal experiences. Should you do it, and when?

As somebody on the autistic spectrum, knowing when to broach the subject of your diagnosis can be a daunting one. Sometimes it may feel as if it is better to keep quiet about it. In other cases, disclosing your autism or Aspergers can be the right decision.

As a part of me, autism unconsciously affects everything that I do.  Of course, it affects me far more strongly in some ways than in others. On the surface it may appear to be invisible to the casual observer, seeing as I look, walk and talk much like any other ‘neurotypical’ human being. In certain social situations, for example, when I am making small talk (which I find hard) or talking to somebody about a subject I am deeply passionate about (which I find all too easy), traits of my Aspergers often show themselves through the way that I communicate. Equally, when I am attempting numerous practical tasks from supposedly simple everyday procedures like tying a tie to more unusual tasks such as putting up a tent, the problems I face are often all too apparent (and in many cases perplexing) to other non-autistic people.

So would I say that divulging your condition as an autistic person is a good idea? The answer is that it completely depends on who you are planning to tell.

All of the schools I attended were made aware that I was on the spectrum and, consequently, support was put in place for me as and when it was appropriate. Whilst I am relatively low-functioning in comparison with other Autists and Aspies, everybody on the spectrum is different when it comes to their needs. The school system was certainly daunting for me at times, though of course the same can likely be said for neurotypical students.

For the most part, I went through school without a great deal of additional help. What help I did have wasn’t picked up by other students as a sign that I was particularly ‘different’, because numerous non-autistics had additional help also, Dyslexic students being one example.

So, would I recommend (from my experience) letting your school and your teachers know about your diagnosis? Yes.

Would I recommend telling other students, with the exception of your close friends?

Absolutely not.

This is where the nature of autism and how it affects the individual comes into play on a big level. Whereas a person with Dyslexia is not impaired socially, a person with autism or Aspergers is fundamentally different in their approach to social situations and their understanding of social cues. In primary school, this, for me at least, did not pose much of a problem. It was when I went to secondary school that the problems started.

At this stage neurotypicals often begin to exhibit symptoms of what I call The Sheep Mentality. That is to say that it suddenly becomes very important for them to fit in socially and follow the trends of the people they wish to befriend. Autistic people rarely care for popular trends and their interests are often very unconventional, nor do they pretend to care about conforming. This makes them, in the eyes of many neurotypical groups, “uncool”. Unfortunately bullying at school is often just a fact that many on the spectrum have had to face at some stage to a greater or lesser degree (the former was certainly true in my case).

The important thing here is that the victim is being bullied because they have been identified as different by those carrying out the bullying. Bullies bully because there is a difference, and do not necessarily care about why a difference exists. While disclosure could improve matters, it could also make things a good deal worse.

Following school, the next logical place to examine is the workplace.

Based on my own personal experiences, I would absolutely encourage everyone on the spectrum to be honest about their condition and how it affects their way of working. Whilst technically employers are forbidden from using this disclosure of information against you, there is no doubt that it may be a disadvantage in certain situations.  In all likelihood, however, being open about your diagnosis is very unlikely to be the sole reason why you were not chosen for the job. Often it simply comes down to their being another person who was better qualified. Employers in many cases will, in fact, admire your honesty, and some of the more knowledgeable ones may even recognize the potential advantages that your condition brings. Certainly, this is true from my experience of attending interviews where I have disclosed my Aspergers.

Why, then, would I encourage disclosure? There are a number of potential advantages. An employer who is aware of your specific needs is in a far better position to put in place any relevant steps and support systems that can be provided. It’s in the best interests of any credible employer to help to make your role in the work environment as stress-free as possible, after all. I would, therefore, recommend being open about your diagnosis when attending an interview. Of course, this assumes that an appropriate opportunity arises for you to mention it. When is “appropriate”? That depends on the questions you’re asked and your own discretion. I personally have no regrets about disclosing my Aspergers in interviews, as in several of those cases I have been the successful candidate for the job in question.

It might also be prudent to make sure that anybody else in a position of authority over you is aware of your diagnosis, though this is not always essential and again depends upon your own discretion. When it comes to letting your other colleagues know, consider the kind of relationship you have with them. If you have a good relationship, then it’s unlikely to be a problem.

Whether or not your family is aware may depend on when you were diagnosed. I was very young (around the age of 4 or 5) when I received my diagnosis. My parents were very honest with me from an early age and talked to me about what Aspergers is and what it means. At the time, I didn’t necessarily have a full understanding of its effects on me, something which I began to understand with age.

Aspergers has certainly caused challenges for me and my family throughout our lives, but there have also been upsides that have stemmed directly from my condition. Many of my greatest achievements in life have been helped rather than hindered by Aspergers. The reason for this comes down to the intensity of my special interests which fuels a desire to succeed in doing the things I love.

Of course, if you found out about your condition later in life, things may be very different for you when it comes to telling your family. I would reason, however, that a loving family should not have any issues accepting you for something that ultimately is beyond your control.

Some people might argue that there are many discriminatory practices in certain work environments that make revealing a condition like autism unwise. I’d counter that by saying that nothing will be solved by keeping quiet about it. If we are to change how the world views us, we need to be honest about things. After twenty-two years, I decided that I couldn’t bear hiding the truth any longer and I embraced my Aspergers for all its blessings and faults. I was tired of being dishonest.

Are you on the spectrum and do your family know about it? What has your experience been when it comes to telling others about your diagnosis? Comment below, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!

Who am I and why am I here?

Hello everybody and welcome to my blog!

A little bit about me: I am 23 and have Aspergers. I currently work in a bookshop in Hay-On-Wye, Wales. My background is in acting and theatre. I live in the beautiful countryside of Gloucestershire, England.

I will be talking a lot about life, in particular, life with Aspergers and my experiences. I hope to create a community here amongst readers as my following grows over the next few months and years. I would really like to hear your thoughts, so please comment and share your own experiences so that we can get the aforementioned community going.

Peace and love,

Joe