Asperger’s and Birthdays – an autistic perspective

Birthdays can be a difficult time for people with aspergers. Both our own birthdays, as well as the birthdays of other people pose challenges, most of which are tied in with our difficulty in understanding neurotypical social nuances, but which also come from the neurotypical perception of our own behaviours.

Because autistic brains have difficulty picking up on social cues, it can be difficult for aspies to decode the hints you drop about what presents you want, even more so because we can find it difficult to put ourselves into the perspective of other people, especially neurotypical people. The message here then is that it’s generally best to be upfront with an aspie if you expect to receive a present from them – it makes our lives easier, and you’re more likely to receive a present which you actually want!

When I was younger, birthdays were a bit of an awkward time. As a child, I was actually quite popular, as it happened, (despite being a massive introvert I tended to ‘accidentally’ make friends without meaning to) so I inevitably got invited to a lot of birthday parties. Now, I wanted to go to those parties. I definitely liked the idea of parties, and I loved getting dressed up (fancy outfits were exciting, so long as they weren’t too itchy). However, inevitably, when we arrived at the party, I would withdraw into myself. I would stay on the edge of the room, hanging on to my mum’s hand, not interacting with the other children. I wanted to watch, but I didn’t want to participate – the only times I would get involved was if the activity didn’t involve talking to other people. This was prior to my ASD diagnosis, and my parents were stumped, and would always apologise for my behaviour. They didn’t know why I acted the way I did – they knew I wasn’t that shy. Yet, to every neurotypical at the party, it looked like I had an awful time. But consistently, in my own mind, I’d had a great time. I’d be buzzing after the party, and talk about it a lot. 

In addition, for me, both receiving and giving presents used to be particularly awkward. When on people’s birthdays we would all gather round and hand over presents, and I would be the one who didn’t really engage in the celebration. My mum happened to talk to an autistic adult who explained that he found not only receiving but also giving presents very awkward and my mum could directly relate this to what she observed in my behaviour. Following this, she directly asked me how I felt, and I was able to explain to her how I felt awkward because I didn’t know what to do in those social situations. And so from then on, we had a routine where, on special occasions, for example her birthday, I can hand over her present, give her a hug, and stay for as long as I am comfortable, but then I can leave freely and nobody takes offence at this.

At my own parties, I would always accept presents, but I often seemed rather ungrateful; I wouldn’t really say ‘thank you’ unless prompted, and I often wouldn’t even appear excited about the gifts I received, even if they were exactly what I had been asking for. A memorable incident which my Mum recalls was when five-year-old me received a gift I had always wanted (a Fifi and the Flowertots playhouse), and I replied – ‘I always wanted that,’ in the most deadpan voice imaginable.

Looking back, it’s easy to see why people thought I was ungrateful, or rude. On the surface, that’s what my reactions seem to show. However, these reactions were actually related to my aspergers – my ASD and subsequent lack of innate social skills meant that I didn’t express my happiness in the (neuro)typical way – so, even when I got exactly what I wanted, I didn’t know how to express my excitement in a neurotypical fashion to show my gratitude. 

So what’s the solution? Well, as much as aspies can be taught acceptable social skills to better communicate with neurotypicals, I think the reality is that the problem is not with us, but with a very human bias that all of us have in some form or another. We have a habit of interpreting other people’s behaviour through the lens of our own biases.

When talking specifically about ASD, it all comes down to a key idea: neurotypicals need to recognise that because our brains are wired differently, our reactions sometimes differ from the neurotypical norm. 

Let’s try a potentially useful analogy – the distinction between cats and dogs. They’re different animals, right? Thus they have distinct brains and behaviours. So far so obvious. Now, in slightly oversimplified terms, when a dog wags its tail, that means it’s happy. But when a cat wags its tail, that can be a sign of aggression. It’s the same reaction on the surface, the act of wagging one’s tail, but it means completely different things because cats and dogs, obviously, have different brains. 

So, how does this apply to aspies and neurotypicals? Aspies may not express their gratitude or excitement in the same way that neurotypicals do. An action that, when done by a neurotypical, expresses rudeness or ingratitude, when done by an aspie, can mean the complete opposite. The important thing is to avoid imposing our own perceptions about what certain things mean onto the actions of other people who have different neurotypes to us. If a cat is wagging its tail, don’t assume it’s happy just because you’ve seen a dog wag its tail when it was happy. In a similar way, recognise that autistic brains are different to neurotypical brains, and that we have different responses. 

It’s also important to recognise that (as long as the behaviour in question is not harmful) neither set of behaviour, neurotypical or autistic, is inherently better or worse than the other: we have to treat these different behaviours for what they are – that is, expressions of our different neurotypes. You wouldn’t say a cat’s expression of happiness (i.e. purring) is better than a dog’s expression of happiness (i.e. wagging its tail), nor would you expect a dog to purr just because that’s what cats do and therefore it’s ‘the right way’. No, instead you recognise that they are just different modes of expression. So we shouldn’t expect autistics to automatically conform to neurotypical standards of self-expression, or assume that just because a neurotypical majority behaves one way that it’s the ‘correct’ way, and everything that differs from that is wrong. 

Going to parties, for example, can be highly stressful for aspies, because of the overstimulation they can cause. Some aspies tend to dislike surprise parties for themselves too – we need warning of these in advance in order to mentally prepare, and springing it on us, as is the nature of surprise parties, can cause a lot of overstimulation. This can often be difficult for neurotypicals to grasp, but it comes back to the idea of acknowledging our different neurotypes. As much as you, as a neurotypical, might enjoy surprise parties, you shouldn’t assume that an aspie will – our brains are wired differently. 

Chapter 1 Part 2: New Faces

Part 2 of the first chapter of my WIP novel. Click here or visit my recent posts to see part 1. Likes and follows greatly appreciated, as is any constructive feedback!

“Gentlemen,” a male voice said sharply, coming from behind Max.

In front of Max, Lane stopped, straightening up with a scowl. Max turned around sharply. A man in his fifties, wearing a crisp black suit with a tie the same shade of grey as his hair, stood in the doorway to the next room, to the left of the marble fireplace, with an expression of mild exasperation. 

As he stepped into the room, Max saw that he was followed by a girl – she looked to be about twenty or so, around Max’s own age. Her long black hair flowed loose over her shoulders – though as it caught the light Max saw it was not quite black – she had brown highlights which accentuated the natural waves. She was in a light grey, long-sleeved, form-fitting dress — something plain, but she wore it elegantly. As her dark-eyed gaze fell on Max and Lane, she moved past the old man and hurried over to Lane. Max was struck by the elegance of her movements, the poise with which she held herself. 

“Lane,” she exclaimed, her voice laced with concern. Producing a handkerchief from a concealed pocket, she dabbed at his face. 

“I’m fine, Ivanna,” Lane said, brushing her off, though he took the handkerchief, wiping the blood from his nose and lip.

So that’s Ivanna, Max thought. Curiously, he looked between her and the man in the suit. Both of them carried a certain air about them, not just in their clothes but in the way they behaved. Wealth, Max thought. Moreover, there was a resemblance. The man was regarding Ivanna and Lane with an inscrutable expression, but now he approached Max. She’s his daughter, Max realised, looking at him. The man’s eyes crinkled at the edges as he smiled.

“I’m glad you’re here,” he said. “I hope you’ll forgive the sudden introduction,”

“Who are you?” Max said. 

“Darren Clarke,” he said, affably. “I own this manor, and this is my daughter, Ivanna.”

Ivanna glanced at Max, her dark eyes appraising, and inclined her head slightly.

Max was about to say something, when a door to their right clicked open. A young man walked in: bronze-skinned with blonde, curly hair. He was wearing a purple hoodie and jeans. He stopped as he saw them, grey eyes flicking between each person. His gaze fell on Lane, still holding the bloody handkerchief to his nose, and for a moment his expression contorted in restrained emotion. Then he burst out laughing, a grin stretching broadly across his face. Lane looked furious.

This new arrival was promptly followed by another boy, in a navy t-shirt. He was leaner than his preceding companion and had lighter blonde hair — so light it was almost milky in contrast with his own tanned skin. He looked mildly bewildered at the sight of them all standing there, then shrugged and carried on into the room (leaving the first boy guffawing in the doorway), falling casually onto one of the green sofas, and looking rather aloof from the whole proceeding. 

“Max, meet Ruben,” Darren Clarke said, gesturing to the first boy, who was just recovering himself under Lane’s withering glare. “And this is Chris,” 

The boy on the sofa, Chris, raised a hand in a rather indifferent greeting. 

Max regarded both young men warily.

“Why did you bring me here?” He asked Ivanna’s father. 

Darren Clarke smiled thinly. “Are you familiar with The Other Place?” he asked, mildly. His peaceable tone didn’t stop Max’s head from spinning on hearing it mentioned a second time. The Other Place. It was strange to hear it spoken about by anyone other than himself and Keeper. After all, it had belonged to them. It was their game, when they were kids, or so he’d thought. 

Max remembered a summer-touched grassy field, where he’d been sitting, twelve-years-old, making whistles from the dry grass. He recalled the tell-tale whoosh of air compressing, and how he’d turned round to see his little sister standing behind him. 

“Where you been?” He’d asked, as he always did. On that occasion, Keeper’s light brown hair was braided, and she was wearing different clothes than the ones she had been wearing when he’d last seen her six days ago.

“The Other Place,” Keeper answered, as usual. Her cheeks were flushed and rosy, her green eyes bright. She crouched down in front of him, rocking on her heels, eager to tell him all the stories from the place that she went to often but he could never go to. 

“It’s just like our world,” she’d told him once. “There are people and buildings and stuff. But it’s slightly different.”

“How?” he’d asked, ardent for explanations of the wonder that even as a twelve-year-old he recognised in her nine-year old eyes. 

“It’s happier there,” Keeper had said, after a long pause. “I don’t know how else to explain it.”

The Other Place. He’d always imagined it as some idyllic world. Like our own, but brighter. 

“Why did you come back?” He’d asked her once, after she’d been gone for a week. Their mother had been angry that time, and after dark she’d crept into his room, and he’d shared his stash of biscuits as a substitute for her forfeited supper. He’d looked down into her childish face. “If it’s better there, why do you come back?” he’d said.

“Because I miss you!” she’d replied, as though it were obvious. “I’ll always come back eventually, I have to see my big brother at least some of the time,” 

As he’d grown older, Max had placed his memories of her stories about it on a shelf with the rest of his nostalgic childhood daydreams. In the early weeks and months after her actual disappearance, he’d held onto that memory with a fervent hope. But like all the rest of his hopes, he’d dropped it eventually, putting it down to Keeper’s imaginings. But now, this old man spoke about it like it was real. 

“Max?” Darren Clarke was looking at him expectantly.

How the hell did he know? Max bit his tongue, and said nothing. 

Noticing his discomfort, Ivanna left Lane’s side. 

“We’re sorry to have bring you here so unexpectedly,” she said, kindly, “But Keeper thinks that we might need your power,”

Max felt chills go down his spine. His fists clenched, and he dropped her gaze. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he muttered, his voice tight. “Keeper’s gone. I don’t have a power,” 

With his gaze fixed to the floor, he sensed both Ivanna and Darren frown. Ivanna spoke slowly. “Something hit The Other Place. Destroyed it. Keeper asked us to find you.”

Max paused, then shook his head resolutely. The Other Place was imaginary. Something Keeper made up. And in any case, she was gone. Nonetheless, his insides turned. The Other Place, destroyed? 

“So what?” he muttered, turning away.

“Whatever it is could hit our world too,” Darren said soberly.

Could?” he turned back to them, indignant, “Don’t tell me you brought me here just because something could happen,”

Ivanna’s frown deepened and her brow furrowed, a mirror image of her father’s expression. “If something out there is powerful enough to destroy The Other Place,” Ivanna said, “It’s imperative that we figure out what it is, in case it threatens our world too.”

“Why do you need me here?” he snapped.

“We don’t know how much time we have. The Other Place runs barely six months ahead of us – when Lane went there, it was already in ruins – that was three months ago. At best, we have barely three months to figure out what happened.”

He went to The Other Place? Max shot a glance at Lane, momentarily hesitant. 

“Is that what you’re all here for?” Max asked, and looked around at them.

Ivanna nodded. “You’ve seen what Lane can do,” she said. “Ruben can anticipate events. Chris has foresight.”

Max swallowed, eyeing the two young men uncertainly. Ruben had joined Chris, and perched nervously on the sofa, his eyes glued to Max, though Chris still looked disinterested. “You said Keeper was here?” he mumbled.

Ivanna nodded. 

His sister was alive. Max’s heart pounded. Not for the first time that afternoon, it was all getting to be too much. But it wasn’t possible. He couldn’t, wouldn’t let himself get his hopes up. Six years, he told himself firmly. Six years she’s been gone, why would it change now? And after all, what’s to stop her leaving again, even if she was alive, and back? Why did he even want to see her again? — she was the one who left him, after all. She’d abandoned him. And now he’d discovered that she’d not only returned, but she’d gone behind his back and told these people that he had a power.

His anger boiled over, inflamed by fear. Max shoved down the hope flowering in his chest, and turned on Ivanna furiously, “I can’t help you,” he said shortly, then headed for the door.

“You can’t just walk away from this, Max,” Ivanna said.

“Watch me,” he retorted, storming down the hall. 

“So what?” Lane’s voice cut across him reprovingly, “You’re just gonna let the whole planet die, without even trying?” 

“Not my responsibility,” Max snapped over his shoulder. “I’ll die with them.” Doubts seeded in his mind, at that last part, but he kept walking.

“Ah, but that’s not exactly true is it?” Lane said, as though he had read Max’s mind. 

Max stopped, breathing hard. How much do they know? How much did she tell them? 

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said, his voice high. He could feel panic constricting his chest again. 

“Max, just hear us out,” Ivanna appealed. 

Max turned back to face them. Ivanna glanced nervously at her father. “How much did she tell you?” He snapped, fists clenched. He’d thought he was angry before, but now he was outraged. Keeper had told them? Lane raised his head, noticing Max’s change of tone, looking eager for a fight. Max had half a mind to give him one, regardless of the others present.

That’s when his sister’s voice reached his ears.

“Max?”

Autism & Empathy

There’s a misconception that autistics don’t feel empathy. While every autistic experience varies, personally I have found that although I do sometimes struggle with empathy, the issue more often comes from the fact that I am intensely empathetic, but I lack the instinctive social skills to express that empathy. But before we get into that, let’s remind ourselves of some definitions, just so we’re clear:

Empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Sympathy: feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.

The crucial difference here is that empathy is based on understanding someone’s feelings.

So, why do I believe I am empathetic? Well, for a start, I’m sensitive to other people’s feelings; arguably, too sensitive, on occasion. If I am near someone who is anxious, it affects me. It’s as though there is an electric charge in the air, causing me to feel on edge, occasionally even more so than the person who actually has reason to be anxious. Similarly, when someone is distressed, I absolutely feel their emotions. When I was younger, I would get upset whenever my sister got told off, because she would start crying, and I would see her sadness and experience it myself. I would feel guilty when other people would get told off in class, even though I was perfectly well behaved. To this day, second-hand embarrassment is agonising.

In other words, you could say I have an abundance of empathy – I feel everything. The problem arises however, because I’m awkward in expressing empathy. My Asperger’s means that I lack the instinctive social tools to convey my sympathies, even when I feel other people’s emotions intensely. Because it’s difficult for me to read people, I am stuck on how to communicate compassion. There’s no manual for how to reassure someone – and subsequently I’m stuck cycling through a list of clichéd reassurances that sound stale and insincere when I say them. And so more often than not, I find myself confined to awkward silence, and this leads some people to conclude I lack empathy. I don’t, I just don’t know how to express it in an appropriate way, which can be extremely frustrating, and sometimes leads to me trying to avoid situations where I feel obliged to attempt reassurance, which in turn can make me come off as negligent towards the emotions of others, perpetuating the cycle.

Another difficulty I think that a lot of people have, but which is perhaps notably prominent in autistics, is that we approach complex human emotions from a position of logic and problem-solving, when in reality, the emotions of the people around us aren’t always logical. Aspie brains in particular tend to be quite analytical (at least, mine is), and so we hunt for logical solutions. This can lead to times where, in trying to root out a rational cause-and-effect progression, and justify a logical solution, we misinterpret events. We will often try to problem-solve and offer pragmatic advice, when actually what our emotional friend needed was a friendly ear, and a chance to vent. People don’t always want solutions, sometimes they just want sympathy. Because we are not socially programmed in the same way as neurotypicals though, autistics can miss the social cues that would tell us what our friend is looking for.

There’s a trope that autistics have a tendency to make things about ourselves when we’re actually just trying to show empathy. When someone else shares an experience, we often tell stories about our own lives and inadvertently change the topic back to our own experiences – which can make us come off as self-absorbed, but in reality it’s actually because we are trying to show empathy and reassure our friend by expressing how we relate to their feelings through a related experience. The message here then is to not judge us too harshly if our attempts at empathising fall flat, and for autistics themselves to be aware of this difference in our mental programming, and try to account for it.

But I would argue that autistics aren’t the only ones susceptible to misguided attempts at empathy; neurotypicals are guilty of this too. This came up quite recently for me, when I had someone tell me, in response to me relating my autism diagnosis: ‘I think we’re all a little bit on the spectrum,’ This statement is actually fairly common, and – while it’s rooted in a good-intentioned attempt at reassurance and friendliness – to an autistic, it can come off as trivialising our lived experiences, minimising our actual struggles by saying we’re not that different. In actuality, we are different, and we should embrace that diversity – not downplay it.

This brings me to the real message here – maybe we should all be aware that sometimes it’s okay not to empathise. We don’t always understand how people are feeling, we can’t always relate, and in these times, maybe we shouldn’t try to force empathy, but instead, maybe it’s just enough to sympathise with the person, and offer what assistance we can. Sometimes it’s enough to simply appreciate, and not need to understand. Maybe what’s actually important is demonstrating that even when we can’t understand or share someone else’s experience, that we can still show them respect as human beings. We don’t need to minimise or ignore our differences to act empathetically. 

Chapter 1: His Sister’s Envoy

This is the opening from one of my WIP (work in progress) novels. I plan to post following chapters in the coming weeks. I hope you enjoy. Constructive feedback, likes and follows are greatly appreciated.

(Yes, one character in particular was inspired by the Netflix version of The Umbrella Academy: no points for guessing who).

Max put his earbuds in, deliberately breathing slowly, tying up his heartbeat to the rhythm of the music. He dared a glance sideways. The boy leant against the wall adjacent to the counter, arms folded, watching Max and pretending that he wasn’t.

He had dark, deep-set eyes, half-hidden behind thick curls of coal-black hair. Most interesting, or concerning, depending on how you looked at it, were the handful of separate scars criss-crossing the tanned skin of his face and hands, some of them old, some of them clearly very recent.

When he had first noticed the boy, four days ago now, (Max shivered to think how long the boy might have been watching him without his notice), he’d almost been pleased – normally, he wouldn’t at all have minded the attention; Max was far too introverted to go and talk to him, obviously, but he might’ve been flattered. But the more he paid attention, the more the boy kept showing up, it had started to worry him. And now the boy was here, in the shop, where Max worked, the closest he’d ever been.

It was the end of his shift, and as he sorted through his rucksack, Max kept casting furtive glances towards the boy. Then the boy happened to meet his eye, and immediately Max felt the weight of his stare root him to the floor. His gaze was full of deliberateness, carefully calculated. Max’s skin crawled under the scrutiny, his instincts screaming for caution, made all the worse by the fact that the threat this boy posed was entirely unknowable. What does he want? Max wondered, tense.

The boy was slim, even leaner than Max, which was saying something. But something in the boy’s stance, the way he leant casually with both feet planted firmly on the ground, even more than the scars, suggested a familiarity with violence, as though he were well-accustomed to getting into fights and winning them.

And now he wouldn’t look away.

Max shouldered his rucksack. The boy straightened then, pushing himself up off the wall, and took a step towards him.

Max’s breath caught in his chest, swelling like a storm – his mouth went dry. For a moment he was frozen.

And then, as if no one else existed besides he and the boy, as though they were participants in some abstract dance, the boy’s approach triggered Max’s flight. With as much restraint as he could manage, Max turned and slipped around the edge of the room, skirting tables and chairs on his path to the door, all the while keeping the boy in his peripheral vision, maintaining as much distance between them as was feasibly possible.

Escaping through the door, he lost sight of the boy, and for a moment the simple rush of the cold winter air on his face and filling his lungs was such a contrast to the stifling warm air of the coffee shop that it overwhelmed his senses. He pulled down his mask, and briefly revelled in the sense of relief induced by the change in environment.

With the rain falling lightly on his face, he felt suddenly foolish. But it was too late to bother going back inside now. Lightly, he descended the stone steps and stepped along the pavement, crossing in front of the book shop. As he walked, he looked down at his feet, watching small puddles gathering where the tributaries ran along the cracks in the pavement coalesced. Straying from his habitual route in favour of a shorter path home, Max turned a corner, only to stop short.

On the opposite side of the street, in the shadow of a cramped alleyway that disappeared behind a butcher’s shop, leant against the wall as if he had been waiting the whole time, stood the boy. Max swallowed, standing frozen in the rain, unable to meet the boy’s stare but unable to entirely avoid it either. Seconds passed, achingly, and Max’s brain finally caught up, incomprehension rendering his shock all the more poignant. He didn’t waste time trying to rationalise the impossibility. He spun on his heel and strode briskly back down the by-street, back onto the main road. He turned left away from the coffee shop, pulling his grey hood up.

Tactically, Max weaved through the gaggles of unassuming pedestrians, tailing behind a mournful-looking huddle of teenagers for several blocks before turning down a different street. He kept his eyes down, not daring himself to look up and risk seeing the boy again, though the more rational part of him objected to the superstitious notion. He walked fast, and made surreptitious attempts to ingratiate himself into the dissipating flow of pedestrians as they fled the streets and the drizzle.

As he turned onto the next street, Max darted an optimistic glance along the terrace towards his house. The street was all but empty, but now Max’s heart leapt into his throat.

The boy leant against the fence at the end of his front garden, hands in his pockets, watching him. Max swallowed, internally debating turning around even as his feet carried him closer. The boy’s gaze never left him as he approached. His eyes seemed to narrow as he scrutinised Max’s face. Max stopped two metres away.

“Who are you?” He demanded, his voice high-pitched, even to his own ears. The second the words left his lips he regretted them – by acknowledging it out loud, he had somehow turned the circumstance into something real, unignorable.

The boy kept looking at him, frowning, dark eyes fixed on his face. When he spoke, his expression hardly changed.

“Lane,” he answered, and then finally his posture altered, as he extended a hand to Max. Max looked at his open palm warily.

Lane’s hand fell back to his side, but he looked undaunted.“You’re Max Heathrow, right?”

Max’s frown deepened as he exhaled in a soft whistle.

“You know who I am,” he said, and sniffed, the situation getting to him. He stuffed his trembling hands in his pockets, dipping his head as he looked at his feet. What on Earth is happening? Who is this guy?

Lane cocked his head slightly, his lip quirking. “I’m here on behalf of your sister,” he said, and for a moment, Max was so focused on his officious tone and the world-weary breath of a sigh that trailed the statement that its contents bypassed him completely. Then the sentence hit him like a punch to the gut.

“My sister is dead,” he answered resolutely, his voice decidedly flat even as alarm bells rang in his ears. He caught himself speaking to the floor, and dragged his gaze back to Lane, lip curling. “Is this some sick joke?” He snapped, and Lane’s natural scowl became active.

“Keeper asked me to find you,”

Max’s head spun as his brain caught the name and set it alight – his thoughts fraying and sparking. Keeper. An old nickname, his sister’s nickname, unspoken for six years. A burning began in his chest, and seemed to spread through him – at odds with the cold drizzle seeping through his clothes. The air suddenly felt robbed of all its oxygen, or perhaps the burning blaze inside him had consumed it all. Outwardly, Max knew his expression was neutral, and that he gave little away – Diana had reassured him of that often enough when he had panic attacks at work, but it was little solace. How does he know her name? Max’s skin felt too tight. He was burning up. He opened his mouth to speak, and found that no sound came; panic was threatening to choke him and his dry throat provided no outlet.

For a moment, Max just stood there, wrestling with his emotions. The questions rolled, crashed, turned, raced through his mind – always coming back to the same things. Who is he? How does he know her name? Why is he here for me?

As his panic eventually subsided, smothered by his frantic attempts at rationalisation, and Max found himself swelling with indignation. Anger, at being reminded of his younger sister, humiliation at being rendered speechless, fear of what was happening and what it could lead to, all of it, he directed at the boy in front of him. This was some sick joke. A trick. A ploy against him. He glared at Lane, who just kept standing there with that infuriating, impassively smug expression.

Finally, Max found his voice. “I want no part in this,” he hissed.

Something inscrutable flickered across Lane’s countenance, if it weren’t so fleeting, Max might have taken it for bitter understanding. Then Lane seemed to steel himself. Max’s anger evaporated, replaced by trepidation as Lane’s expression shifted. Suddenly Lane seized his arm. Max jerked backwards, alarmed, but Lane’s grip was vice-like.

All at once, Max’s surroundings seemed to blur and distort. For a split-second, Max glimpsed in Lane’s pupils a reflection of Lane’s fist around his own arm, glowing with blue light. Simultaneously, Max felt a sensation like a ripple of energy moving through him. Max’s stomach flipped, as though he was falling. In a moment he had lost all awareness of his surroundings, the only tangible thing was Lane’s unshakable grip on his forearm. Suddenly, the floor surged up to meet his feet, and with the abrupt return of sensation, Max’s knees buckled.

Retching, Max fell onto a cold stone floor, clamping his hand over his mouth. He fought down the taste of bile, trying to steady his breathing. The world seemed to warp and swirl around him, gradually coming back into focus with disorienting clarity. Blinking away hot tears and swallowing the burning in his throat, Max realised, in the same way that most people realise an impossibility (that is, with a jolt of bewildered panic) that they were no longer standing on the street outside his house. What he’d taken for the stone of pavement beneath his knees he realised was actually smooth, white marble. Ahead of him, he could see a skirting board, which gave way to golden wallpaper embellished with various geometric patterns. Gradually raising his head, he noticed, a short way to his left, a sideboard made of some rich dark wood, and along from that, a panelled oak door left slight ajar, through which he could glimpse the outlines of rich tapestried furniture, and a huge fireplace against one wall. Slowly, uncomprehending, Max turned his head, and realised Lane stood just beside him, still gripping his arm. Max thought dizzily that Lane’s hold on his arm was the only thing stopping him falling further to the ground.

“Take your time,” Lane said. “The nausea will wear off in a few minutes,”

Slowly, Max absorbed the details of his new surroundings. They were in some sort of lobby – an immense staircase began in front of Max, then curled off to the left and right, and a large chandelier hung unlit above them.

Max got unsteadily to his feet, and Lane released him. Max turned to him, vainly attempting to calm his breathing.

“Where are we?” He asked haltingly. Lane eyed him skeptically, as though making sure he weren’t about to fall over again.

“This is Ivanna’s house,” he answered, as though that explained anything, then turned and sauntered through the hall to a door on the right, revealing a large living room, leaving Max to trail behind him, shaking. Who’s Ivanna?

The sitting room was enormous, with a vast marble fireplace at one end, and a bar at the other, the intervening space occupied by two sage-green leather sofas, and glass coffee table. Two enormous bay windows took up most of the far wall, bathing the room in warm sunlight, and bookshelves lined the wall closest to him. There must have been hundreds, if not thousands of books on those shelves, all arranged neatly.

“What just happened?” Max found his voice, more assertive this time.

Lane was sitting languidly on a barstool, and glanced at him appraisingly as he approached the bar. To Max’s surprise, Lane had taken out and was eating from a packet of Jelly Babies.

“I’d have thought you would have figured that out by now,” he sighed, “Given your sister’s abilities,” The Jelly Babies packet vanished back into his pocket.

Max swallowed. “Is she here?” he asked, a hint of hysteria creeping into his voice. Lane gave him a once-over, then reached over the bar top and started making a drink.

“She said she’d be back by this evening,” he said, “In the meantime, you should meet the others.”

Max sat down on a bar stool. “Others?” he asked in a strangled voice.

Lane pushed a drink along the bar top towards him, and lifted his own to his lips, downing it in a single gulp.

“I don’t drink,” Max said.

Lane raised an eyebrow, then shrugged, and leaned forward again, picking up Max’s glass again and drinking it too. “You’ll meet them soon,” he said, “They’re around.”

Max sat there, frowning. After a moment of silence, he said, “Look, I don’t know who you think you are, but I don’t want anything to do with this,” he tried to keep his voice calm, reasonable.

Lane sighed. “Yeah, she said you wouldn’t want to be involved. Unfortunately, we haven’t got a choice.”

“I think you do,” Max interrupted, “Just leave me alone,” he stood up. “I told you, I don’t know anything about whatever you’re doing, and I don’t want to.”

His voice rose on the last line, and he bit his lip, turning away. He heard footsteps behind him, and sighed as Lane’s hand fell on his shoulder briefly. He glanced back. Lane’s dark eyes regarded him solemnly.

“We need your help, Max,” he said gravely, “The Earth could be destroyed if we don’t find out what’s happening in the Other Place,”

He said it with such severity that for a moment Max was dumbfounded. Then Max scoffed. “You’re insane,” he concluded, and made move to leave.

All of a sudden, Lane was standing in front of him, jabbing a finger against his chest with an expression of manic fury. The afterimage of blue light flickered in front of Max’s eyes as he blinked.

“You have no idea what you’re dealing with,” Lane said vehemently. Max took a step back, shocked by the sudden change in demeanour, but Lane pressed forward, incensed. “It’s one thing to try and stay out of this world, but you have no right to deny its-“

Max punched him. A short, sharp jab to his nose. Lane grunted, staggering backwards. Then abruptly he vanished in a rush of air and a flash of blue light. Max looked around him in surprise, and then Lane reappeared, landing (‘landing’ was the only way Max could think of it, as there was a soft thud as Lane’s feet hit the floor again) a few metres away, a hand over his nose, blood dripping from between his fingers. Max rubbed his knuckles, and winced. Lane swore colourfully, then stepped towards him, fists clenched. Adrenaline shot through Max’s system, even as his thoughts reeled – what he could do against Lane’s powers was dubious, but a stubborn, objectively less rational part of his brain insisted that whatever happened Lane was not going to come out of it unscathed.

Writing Ethos

Reading has always been a solace for me, but so has writing stories. When I was younger, I would inhale books (usually fantasy) at a concerning speed, and time has only heightened my appreciation for literature as a whole. In recent years, the balance has tipped more in favour of writing my own fiction, but I still brand myself as a bookworm.

Given that I’m putting short stories on here now, I thought I’d take the chance and talk about my thoughts on reading and writing, and what they mean for me. I’m not a published author; I don’t talk with any authority other than what my own experiences lend me. I’m just someone who’s passionate about writing. This post is for others like me, and for all those people who ask me why I write my stories when I’m not necessarily planning to publish them.

I think both writing and stories in general are more than just entertainment. Of course, the escapism provided by stories can be just that, simple entertainment and distraction, but books aren’t just limited to that. Books don’t always have to be fun, they can be experiences unto themselves. I view literature as having the potential to powerfully impact who we are as people.

First and foremost, literature can help us to flex empathy – I think that, besides escapism, is the true beneficial quality of reading, and of writing. When you read about, or write, about a character, you get into their head. You explore a viewpoint that is not your own – in other words, you’re training yourself to perceive things in a way that you normally wouldn’t. Even if you’re writing an autobiography, say, for an extreme example, you are still exploring your own viewpoint in a deeper way. That ability to imagine your way into other people’s perspectives can be honed, I think, through reading and writing. And it can be helpful for real life later on, when you will likely encounter people with vastly different experiences and views.

Reading and writing can also help us with self-expression. Not only does being well-read make you sound fancy in front of other people, having a wider vocabulary can also be beneficial for expressing yourself. Through reading, you learn new ways of self expression, and in my case certainly it has made me more articulate and given me tools to be able to accurately describe my internal emotions. I think it’s a vital skill, being able to express yourself, and having the right words, or even words that are close to the right ones, can help to alleviate a lot of frustration. Part of being an aspie means that I internalise a lot of my emotions, and occasionally in times of distress or severe overstimulation I find myself actually unable to speak, but even in those cases, having the right words to describe what I’m feeling, even if it’s just mentally to myself, alleviates a lot of the tension. But it’s not just for me – whoever you are, it’s valuable to be able to express yourself, especially nowadays when so much of communication is digital and fast-paced. Being able to express yourself concisely through a rapid digital medium like texting or emails requires a level of precision, which can be honed the more you read and write.

Speaking of precision, I must confess to being a fan of the idea that, when you get really pedantic about it, there are no synonyms. What is meant by this is that no word means exactly the same as another. There’s a difference between ‘yelled’ and ‘shouted’, in the same way that a ‘house’ has a different feel to a ‘home’, all the words we call synonyms are just barely similar, they all have slightly different connotations, and the art of writing is finding the exact word, or group of words which will let you create the impact you want. That’s what makes writing an art, I think, and why the overlapping areas between poetry and prose, and also more experimental forms of literature, are quite interesting to me. You have to consider different aspects of writing in the different genres, but you are still aiming for precision, just on different levels.

Writing is perhaps crucially though, a kind of catharsis and exploration, not to sound too pretentious. When I write, I’m exploring new concepts, figuring things out in my own mind, pinning down my reactions to things and organising my own emotional responses. My fictional characters often embody aspects of my own life. To name an example – when I was thirteen, I sprained my ankle. Hence, one of the characters I came up with shortly afterwards was disabled, and another had a permanent limp and had to walk with a cane. Of course, I knew that my sprained ankle wasn’t going to permanently injure me, but nonetheless it had brought up thoughts about physical injury, and so as I look back over what I wrote around that time, I can see now that I was (quite subconsciously, mind you) exploring my reactions to the subject of injury through inhabiting a fictional character. And so, in this way, I think writing is a valuable tool for us to understand ourselves and the world around us, by filtering it through the lens of fiction.

It’s pretty common for writers to draw inspiration from their own experiences, the old aphorism ‘write what you know’ doesn’t come from nowhere, but I think we often forget how a lot of it can also be subconscious. I quite like to reread my old drafts of stories and characters, because in them I see reflections of my younger self, and the imprints of the concepts I was grappling with. By nature, I feel that this makes my writing very personal to me, and subsequently I have something of a fear of showing it to other people.

My fears are summed up quite impeccably in the following statement from the character of Basil Hallward, from the Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde.

“The reason I will not exhibit this picture is that I am afraid that I have shown in it the secret of my own soul.”

If I were to show other people my writing, then I would be revealing something deeply intrinsic to myself. This is exacerbated by a deep-rooted perfectionism.

However, I don’t quite agree with Basil’s conclusion that: “An artist should create beautiful things, but should put nothing of his own life into them.

In my experience, art is defined by the passion you put into it. I can write most convincingly about the subjects that I am passionate about, but if I have no interest in the topic, the writing is unlikely to be as high standard, especially when it’s something that’s as big a commitment as a novel. This is why so many authors advise strongly against tailoring your writing to trends in the market – the lack of personal connection to the story generally results in mediocrity.

Artists must therefore be brave, because if we want our art to be recognised, we have to be prepared to show it and something of ourselves to the world. We are not just opening up our works to criticism, we are offering up ourselves – for criticism, judgement, and almost guaranteed rejection.

Short Story – Friends Like These

Note: This fictional story is a departure from my usual content in that it is not related to my ASD. I have aspirations of becoming an author/novel editor, and so I plan to use this blog to upload some of my creative writing in addition to my usual posts. This short story does form part of a wider fantasy narrative I’ve constructed, but still functions as a stand-alone. I would welcome any comments and feedback!

Friends Like These

I still have no idea how Wilbur managed to get us those jobs, working as servants for the wealthiest guy in the area. William Rainier was an unknown; a dark horse millionaire, appearing one day having just bought a string of three-story properties on the main street. But now, as we walked down the street in our stiff-collared uniforms, Wilbur’s still always somehow neater than mine, fitting him better where mine hung loose, I supposed I should be grateful for Wilbur’s knack for talking his way into things. The pay was good: we could afford decent food for the first time in a while. We had modest accommodation now. It beat being on the streets, and the risky business of pickpocketing. 

Of course, it still wasn’t enough for Wilbur. Nothing was ever enough for Wilbur. 

It had been six months now, since Wilbur had begun skimming just a little cash off the top of Rainier’s accounts each month. Being the smart one, he had access to those kinds of things, and made himself (and me) a sneaky little allowance. He’d revealed it to me, one night, almost by accident. With a cigarette in one hand and a bottle in the other, he’d confided in me in a smug, laughing whisper. I shouldn’t have been shocked, but I was – I told him to stop. We’d had an argument. He’d said that he would stop; I’d promised I wouldn’t tell. I thought that would be it. 

Two weeks later though, Wilbur proposed that we make a break for it. 

In hushed whispers, standing outside the estate under the dirty blackish-blue sky, he had eagerly explained his plan. While he spoke, I’d watched the patterns illustrated by the glowing red end of his cigarette, tendrils of smoke curling and twisting like snakes. Rainier kept a key to the vault on his person at all times. When out at the market, we would both attack him. Wilbur would grab the key. We would go back to the house before anyone realised that Rainier was gone, open the vault, steal as much as we could, and then make a break for it. 

Freedom. It smelled so good you could taste it, at least that was what Wilbur said. I’d never had freedom – I’d been born between the lines of this city, in the cracks, crawling my way up to reach the daylight, always under somebody else’s boot. But Wilbur knew what freedom was. These service jobs weren’t good enough, he said. They were well-paid enough to exist upon, sure, we could start savings, but we’d never earn enough to get us out of the city. That was all that he wanted – to get out. To go home. Wilbur came from the countryside, and in this rusty, smog-filled city, he clung to those memories, clutching them close to his chest like a sinner holds prayer beads. Often, while I listened, he would reminisce, lying in bed staring at the ceiling, of green-blanketed fields, of warm, buzzing breezes and wide open space. Wilbur talked about it like a man intoxicated – he was high off the idea of freedom. He wanted it more than anything. I wanted freedom because Wilbur wanted it. He made it sound thrilling, blissful – and now, he claimed, it was within our reach!

But the plan was insane. I told him so. He didn’t like that. A heated exchange of words, voices barely kept below shouting; a bottle smashed, and he stalked out into the night. When he got back, well past midnight, he sat down on his bunk, running a hand through his smoke-smelling hair. I pretended to be asleep. That didn’t seem to matter to him. “Tomorrow, Tommy,” he said. “Tomorrow, you’ll have to choose. You’ll come with me, you know you will. We’re brothers, aren’t we?”

I didn’t answer him, nor did I sleep well that night. The next morning, walking beside Rainier, heading to the market, I reflected that Rainier treated us well. If he wasn’t kind, with his cold, stern tone, at least he wasn’t cruel. He maintained an air of civility, always coolly composed with all of his servants. He had given us this chance, and I didn’t want to betray him. In a foolish way, I guess I looked up to him: he was fair. You couldn’t say that about a lot of the other people I’d worked for. If there was anyone who deserved to be robbed, it wasn’t Rainier.

And if we were caught…

Wilbur knew that he couldn’t do it without me, and he knew that I knew this. Wilbur had his tricks, but Rainier was a trained fighter. He carried a sword, and on several occasions we’d witnessed him spar. He was not a man to be messed with. Even with the element of surprise, it would be difficult to overpower him – it would take the both of us. 

Rainier sent Wilbur on an errand, and Wilbur gave me a stern look before he vanished into the crowd.  Trying to keep the conspiracy from my face, I walked on with Rainier for a while. The market was busy, humming with people. Everyone muttered and grumbled and shouted and chuckled and murmured – irregular spasms of noise occasionally breaking through but always lost in the tide of the noise. Then there was Rainier, stoically striding through it all. While others dallied and speculated between different stalls, Rainier marched directly between them, never distracted, always solemn and reserved in his tight-fitting blue coat. Was that how you got to the top? I wondered.

Wilbur stepped out of the crowd, approaching us with a carefully neutral expression. Dread turned in my stomach. Rejoining Rainier’s side, lingering just slightly behind him, he shot a look in my direction. We turned down into an alley, the bright sunlight interrupted sharply. Walls loomed close on either side. My mouth turned dry. 

I shook my head. 

Something terrifying flashed into Wilbur’s eyes. Then, to my horror, his expression turned resolute, fixing his gaze on Rainier’s back. He couldn’t do it without me – but I had underestimated his determination. I had never tasted freedom, I didn’t know how strong its pull was. An instant too late, I realised what Wilbur was about to do. 

Wilbur leapt at Rainier, a knife materialising in his hand. But somehow, as though by some sixth sense, Rainier turned. Impossibly fast, Rainier’s arm came up to block the knife, catching the blade on his gauntlet instead of his throat. Immediately, Rainier threw a punch to Wilbur’s stomach, doubling him over. But Wilbur was quick, and dropped to a crouch, one leg sweeping round to knock Rainier’s feet from under him. Rainier fell, but rolled, and was back on his feet in a moment. He seized Wilbur’s wrist, twisting hard. The knife clattered to the dusty floor; Wilbur was shoved back against the wall.

I didn’t help him. Wilbur saw me standing there, frozen, and I saw the light leave his eyes. Momentarily, he looked as though he would defy it, but then it was quite clear he gave up. In a shameful instant, the fight was over, and Wilbur was on the floor, half-sitting with his back to the wall, blood running from his nose and the back of his head. Rainier stood with his sword drawn, tip pointed at Wilbur’s chest, breathing hard, but more from shock than exertion.

I stood staring. My brain felt full of cotton. It was horribly, horribly real.

Rainier was shouting now. Wilbur took it on the chin, eyes down, looking blankly at the blade just touching his chest, hardly even flinching as Rainier berated him. His autumn-brown eyes were dead cold, his shoulders hunched. Eventually he raised his eyes, but instead of Rainier, he looked at me. I felt his disappointment like a weight settling in the pit of my stomach.

Police arrived promptly, and Wilbur was dragged off the floor. His head hung, the emotion in his eyes lost in the shadow of his fringe. They grabbed hold of his arms, his shirt, and he hung between several of them, looking like a dead man, betrayed.

I felt a terrible shame.

Rainier turned on me. Paralysed, I stared back at him. His face was flushed, outrage gleamed in his eyes. 

“Were you involved in this, Tommy?” He demanded, brandishing his sword. Jolted out of my stupor, I recoiled from the blade being thrust towards me. The other soldiers turned towards me too. I raised my hands, opened my mouth to speak. But the words died on my tongue, drying up in my mouth. 

Wilbur’s head rose to look at me, urgently staring. His eyes begged me to talk. I couldn’t. Wilbur would be put to death for this. My own brother.

The soldiers moved towards me. My silence was a confession of my guilt.  “Seize him,” Rainier said, white-hot rage turning to cold betrayal in his voice. The soldiers closed in. 

Suddenly Wilbur erupted into violent motion, thrashing furiously.

“Tommy, run!” He yelled. There was a tremendous flash of white light. Momentarily blinded, I staggered backwards, one arm shielding my eyes, blinking away spots. Of their own accord, my feet carried me towards the other end of the alley. I dodged one man, who leapt at me. I heard shouts in my wake – cries of alarm – “He’s a light-twister!”

I didn’t dare glance back. As I reached the end of the alley, bursting out into daylight again, I sensed someone on my heels. I ran faster, charging towards the main clearing. People jumped out of my way, and when they didn’t I slammed into them, pushing and shoving a path for myself, carving a desperate escape. Still, there was someone behind me. 

I glanced back, and stumbled as relief washed over me.

“Keep running!” Wilbur shouted, barely a second behind. We streaked through the market, barreling through stalls, toppling crates and vaulting tables. I was fast, but Wilbur was faster, quickly outstripping me. He crashed through a stack of crates that blocked our path, and I chased desperately after him. I heard the shouts of soldiers behind us, Rainier’s furious commands.

Breathless, I suddenly found my voice, and spat abuse in Wilbur’s direction. My words ran away with me, hitting him in the back.

“You bastard! What the hell did you have to go and do that for?”

“Shut up and run!” Wilbur retorted. 

My anger wasn’t diminished. I ran even faster, catching up to him, almost overtaking as we reached the edge of the market.

Wilbur suddenly grabbed my arm, jerking me backwards into an alcove in the wall, my momentum sending me slamming against the stone. 

“Ow!” I cried. In an instant, Wilbur’s hand clamped over my mouth. His face inches from mine, his wide eyes swivelled left to right, pressing back into the shadow of the stone. 

“The money’s inside my book, in a secret compartment under my trunk,” he relayed hastily, just as out of breath as I was. Shouts erupted from somewhere just a few metres behind us, and we both jumped. I pulled Wilbur’s hand away from my mouth.

“How could you do this!” I hissed, trembling. He glanced back at me, and something threatening darted across his face, fleeting, like a glimpse of an animal through a hedgerow. A twitch of his jaw, the subtle narrowing of his eyes.

I felt a surge of fear as the realisation of his concealed anger hit me. Wilbur was furious. Actually furious. His fists clenched at his sides. He wanted to hurt me.

Then he pulled us both out of the alcove, shoved me forward, and took off in the other direction. 

I watched his brown coat vanish into the crowd, then I ran. Weaving down bystreets, I had been running for maybe thirty seconds when all of a sudden, a gunshot rang out somewhere behind me. 

I froze in my tracks.

A short, harsh cry of pain stood out an instant before it was overtaken by the alarmed cries of market-goers. Wilbur.

I stood in the middle of a street, staring down at the cobbles beneath my feet. The world seemed to stop. I was hyperventilating, could feel tears leaking from my eyes. For far too long, I stood there, trembling.  I saw it in my mind. Wilbur’s retreating coat tails, the bullet ripping right through him. No, it couldn’t be. 

I glanced back – seeing only the empty street behind me. Go back, I thought. Go back and find him

I turned away again, and forced myself to keep going; to run away down the street without looking back. 

Surviving a Cambridge Residential – Tips for managing autism and anxiety.

Recently I had the privilege of going on a two day, overnight residential visit to Trinity Hall College at Cambridge University, organised by my sixth form. When I received the letter informing me that I had a chance to go, I was both excited and nervous. On one hand, it was undeniably a great opportunity – a chance to go to one of the most famous universities, potentially somewhere I might apply to in future. On the other hand, it was an overnight stay in an unfamiliar place 4 hours away from home with unfamiliar people. In other words, an anxiety-inducing nightmare of a prospect, especially with me being autistic.

And yet, here I am. I survived! So here’s some of the strategies which I used to manage my autism on this trip, which helped me, and which will also hopefully help you, to not only survive the trip (or similar situations), but to come out the other side feeling so much more confident and capable in taking on new opportunities going forward. I’ll also be giving a run down of what happened on my trip, for any of those interested in what university residentials are like.

I learned about the Cambridge trip’s existence on quite a short notice (barely a week ahead of time) and although this meant I was a bit stressed – being autistic, I don’t like surprise changes to my routine – I’m also inclined to believe that it was partly a good thing because it meant that once I’d sent off my consent form, I didn’t have time to reconsider and back out. This is something worth considering if you are an anxious person like me – while it can be comforting to know about an experience a long time in advance, so you can prepare, hearing about it later may reduce the time you spend worrying about it. Figure out a balance which works for you for, and minimise unproductive anxiety.

In anticipation of the trip, I asked around, and something daunting quickly became apparent: although there were a few others from my school who I was acquainted with that were going, none of my friends were going on the trip. So, in preparation over the next few days, I set about just gradually getting to know some of the others who were coming on the trip, so I would have someone to talk to.

Tip 1: if you are worried about being alone, see if you can get to know others coming with you beforehand – it’ll give you someone to talk to, and hey, you might make a new friend!

Before the trip, I did a lot of information gathering about Cambridge. Normally, when I am going to go somewhere new, I will travel to the place with my family and we will ‘scout out’ the area, so that when I go there again I feel more comfortable. This was not possible for Cambridge, so instead I looked at google maps, getting a rough idea of the city and where we would be staying. I did some research about Trinity Hall, and I read and re-read the information that came with the letter to parents about the trip. From this, I knew that one of the things which I might have trouble with was sharing a bathroom, while staying in the dorms, so I spoke to my parents and we decided to send an email to the organisers of the trip asking if I could have a room that had an en suite bathroom. We also asked if my room could be close to the room of one of the people who I knew from my school. The organisers were very accommodating, and although I wasn’t able to get a bathroom, I would be close to one.

Tip 2: Make the most of the information you have about the trip, and do your own research to help you feel more comfortable. Email to ask questions and request accommodations beforehand that you feel could be helpful; remember to plan ahead, and think about what you might need.

When I got to the coach, I tried to look for people I knew, but couldn’t spot anyone immediately (the bus was about half-full). I sat down on my own in an available seat, next to the window, and put my bag on the seat next to me, so I kept the space free (the bus wasn’t full so there was space for this). Having that space made me feel a lot more comfortable, as I could stretch out a bit if I needed to.

Tip 3: If possible, and if you aren’t sitting near a friend, get space to yourself, especially if you are inclined to stimming or fidgeting. Having space also reduces some of the stimulation.

It was a four-and-a-half-hour coach journey on the way there. Predictably, the coach was quite loud, but I was prepared: I had my noise-cancelling headphones (which allow me to play music), with a spare charger in my bag just in case. I wore the headphones the whole way down, and didn’t really chat to anybody but that was fine by me.  

Tip 4: Bring whatever tools you would normally have with you, including backups. This could be stim toys, notepads etc. For me, this was noise-cancelling headphones, with backup earbud headphones and a portable charger.

When we stopped at the first service station after about two hours, everyone else got off the bus, but I decided to stay in my seat. The bus was quiet without anyone else on it, and I took my headphones off and read my book for twenty minutes while everyone else was in the services. A teacher noticed me as everyone else was getting off, and made sure I was alright, but thankfully she didn’t object to me staying on the coach, and I was left on my own for a bit. This was a good recovery time, to give my ears a rest as well. I didn’t need to use the services, and preferred the quiet time over stretching my legs, so I was quite happy.

Tip 5: You don’t always have to go along with everyone else. If there is something particular that you feel would benefit you, just check with a teacher.

When we got off the coach at Cambridge, I finally spotted the group from my school, walked with them to Trinity Hall, following the teacher, who pointed out the buildings and different colleges. Finally we settled in the lecture hall, which was to act as a base of operations, of sorts. I made sure to sit with my group, and for the whole of the first day I kept my headphones around my neck with my phone in my pocket in case I needed them. Throughout the day I also had my rucksack with me most of the time, and this was good because I knew that I had all the things that I might need, including food, so there was no anxiety associated with dealing with any needs in that respect. 

Tip 6: Have all your necessary things with you so you don’t have to worry about going back to get it. Feeling self-sufficient can ease anxiety about meeting your needs.

They gave us several maps detailing different aspects of Cambridge and of Trinity Hall specifically, and then we went for a proper tour of the college and parts of Cambridge. This really drove in how big the place was – Trinity Hall itself was almost the size of my secondary school, and it was just one of many colleges dotted all over the place. Luckily for us, it was a beautiful day, and Cambridge is a beautiful city. There were punts on the river Cam (although we’d all been thoroughly warned that we weren’t allowed to go on them), and we walked over several bridges. Cambridge looked to me like something out of a Pinterest board – almost fantastical in the grandiosity of its architecture, evocative of Hogwarts. All of the gardens were incredibly pretty too – neat lawns, and roses and wisteria climbing every wall.

Tip 7: Keep hold of your map

A sandwich lunch was provided in brown paper bags set out on a long table. I took mine, and went to sit outside with everyone else. Looking around, I saw some people I knew, sitting on the steps with a new girl who I didn’t know, and so I went over and sat near them. They included me in conversation, and they became my new group for the rest of the trip.

Tip 8: Don’t be afraid to just go and sit near people – chances are they will be happy to include you in conversation. 

Finally we got to check out our rooms. I found that I was in a downstairs room which was clearly designed for accessibility. The first thing I noticed was of course the automatic door, which acted as though possessed and which would not let you close it – it had to be allowed to close itself or it would resist shutting. This minor inconvenience was certainly worth the room though. My room, being the accessibility room, was pretty spacious (it was larger than most other people’s rooms) and had two sinks, and a kitchen unit with a fridge, microwave and kettle. There were shelves, a wardrobe, two mirrors, a single bed with storage underneath, and a desk in the corner. I had a large bay window with long curtains, though my view just looked out onto the courtyard where the music gallery stood. I was very pleased, and felt much more calm now that the big mystery of what our rooms would be like was solved.

By the time evening rolled around, I was starting to get stimming impulses – and I would consciously resist them. Being in a new place, surrounded by loads of new people, the masking instinct had overruled the stimming urge for most of the day, but as I felt myself getting more tired and overstimmed, there would just be this little nagging feeling to click my fingers – nothing distressing at that point, but just there.

Tip 9: don’t panic when you feel overstim starting to come on. Just be aware of how you are feeling, and know your limits.

After all the tours and talks were done, we were allowed to go out for the evening and explore Cambridge – no adult supervision. Myself and my new group of friends went out to Pizza Express for dinner, and some of my hand stims began, but they weren’t too noticeable, just hand-twisting and finger flexing. Nobody commented or seemed to notice, which was fine by me. It was very quiet at first, but when more people came into the restaurant, it got a lot noisier (the acoustics of the room also made it very echoey) and so the stims became a bit more prominent. But then we finished and left, and once it was quieter the stims calmed down.

Tip 10: Most people don’t notice stims if they are relatively subtle – don’t worry about being judged. I recommend bringing stim toys if you feel uncomfortable.

After dinner, we wanted to see the Airman’s bar which our teacher had told us about. We found the Eagle pub, and then loitered outside for a bit trying to figure out where exactly we had to go, peeking in through the open front door. In the end, we just walked in and went straight to the back, where we were promptly discovered by our teacher, who explained the story of the RAF bar. It was worth seeing – the scrawled names of the soldiers on the ceiling, noticeably so much older than the rest of the room. It was cramped and loud, but we were only in there briefly, and then we went out and bought ice cream (I had chocolate gelato – the best ice cream ever) Afterwards, one of my group suggested that we go to the park, so we did, and sat around chatting as it got dark.

We started heading back to Trinity Hall about twenty minutes before our curfew (9pm) – it was a ten minute walk or so. 

Then disaster struck. Just a few minutes away from the park, I felt my back pocket, and realised I didn’t have my room key. I stopped in the middle of the street, and got my group’s attention. I actually wasn’t freaking out too much – I was just frozen with indecision about what to do, and sort of couldn’t believe it was actually gone. One of my group made the decision for us, starting a sprint back to the park, but in the darkness, even with the aid of phone torches, we couldn’t find the keycard. I was frustrated, mostly irritated at myself for having lost it. There wasn’t time to check the whole of the park or retrace our steps, and it was night-time anyway. So we walked briskly (and I mean briskly) back to campus. My biggest worry was about getting into my room – all of my things were in there. What if they didn’t have a spare key card? I felt guilty as well – annoyed at my own carelessness in having lost it.

Tip 11: If things go wrong, don’t panic!

Our return to the front entrance coincided with that of our teacher. Shame-faced, I told her what had happened. She told me, not unkindly, that I would have to tell the porters. So we went into the porter’s lodge and awkwardly I explained what had happened, throwing in apologies at every chance I got. The porter was very decent about it, and after much rummaging through folders, conjured me a new one. Abashedly I walked back to the lecture theatre with my teacher, who was actually very sympathetic and reassuring. I was immensely grateful to her, and also to my friends for their attempts in helping me find it, and managed to mention it as we all walked back to our rooms after the briefing on tomorrow’s itinerary. They were all very good about it. 

Going to bed was interesting. Being near the staircase, I could hear everything that went on in the rooms and hallways next to and above me. Every time a door shut, you would hear it slam, and every time anyone used their keycard, the ‘beep-beep’ would be heard. The taps were audible and the hand-dryers were frequently set off in the bathrooms. Fortunately, most of the noise settled down by about 11pm, and it didn’t actually bother me too much. I thought to myself, it was the sort of thing that you could probably get used to. I listened to some more music, then plugged everything in to charge for the morning and went to sleep.

Tip 12: Take some time to unwind / down-stim if you need it. Make the most of alone times to down-stim and recharge.

The next day, we got to attend a taster lecture of our choosing. I chose to go to a law lecture, where I had a fantastic time with a really engaging teacher. It was genuinely fascinating, learning a new topic I hadn’t had a chance to before. Afterwards, me and a few other students continued a conversation with the teacher for almost half an hour, debating different legal situations. It was incredibly rewarding.

Tip 13: Ask questions! This one isn’t related to autism, but is generally just a great way of making the most out of experiences. Remember, you are there to learn, so ask all of the questions you can.

Overall, I hugely enjoyed this trip, and found it very helpful. And having the memory of this experience has made me feel a lot more confident in myself and my ability to handle new situations. After all, if I can handle going to Cambridge, I can handle going to the other places. I hope this will be helpful to others on the spectrum, and if you are interested in hearing more about my experiences and the advice that I would give for managing aspergers, please remember to like this post, and follow my blog to see upcoming posts.

Volunteering at West of England Falconry Centre

Florence, the Burrowing Owl, in her aviary. (During my second week, Florence decided to attack my shoelaces and succeeded in shredding tiny holes in the bottom of my trousers – thanks for that, Flo.)

Given that I am someone who has zero aspirations to go into veterinary sciences or to work with animals, it may seem slightly odd that I decided to volunteer at a falconry centre. But (generally) I do like animals and this seemed a reasonable opportunity to do some work experience. As an aspie, it initially seemed a daunting prospect, what with my social anxiety, but I’ve found that it’s been an incredibly supportive environment and has been incredibly enjoyable.

I was actually meant to do work experience at the centre for a week in August (my school runs an activities week at the end of the year and year eleven are advised to find work experience). I arranged mine through email (with a good deal of support and advice from my parents) – I had visited the falconry with my family on a number of occasions prior, and on one visit we enquired about work experience. Following that, I got in touch with the director Naomi through email, and it was arranged. Then COVID hit and cancelled the whole activities week. When I enquired about rescheduling, Naomi suggested that once I turned sixteen, I could volunteer there properly, and so I took up the offer.

So now, every Sunday, I volunteer at the West of England Falconry at Newton St Loe. 

On my first day, in the morning I was assigned to simply watching and listening, which I had expected, and which was fine by me. I was introduced to the other volunteers, and assigned to shadowing one volunteer, Beth, who was very friendly. I was shown how to prepare food for the birds and helped clean out a few aviaries.

Shadowing Beth was perfect for me, because I watched everything she did for several days before I began doing it myself, and then for several days after that I had her specifically watching over me, offering guidance and reassurance. Part of having aspergers means that I have very low self-confidence, and feel a lot better if I have someone I trust confirming that my actions are correct, so having Beth around was very helpful. There are also no stupid questions when you are new – I ask the same questions again and again, and they are answered. And it’s okay that I ask silly questions from time to time, because I know that what I am doing is important for the safety of the birds, so I can’t risk not asking the question and getting it wrong. It kind of defeats that anxiety about asking silly questions when you know that the harm in asking is always so much less than the potential harm in not asking. It helps you to get over that indecision. 

To my surprise, in the afternoon on my first day, Naomi took me out flying Neo, the centre’s common buzzard. I was given a hawking bag, a pot of food, and a glove, and we walked out to the fields. Naomi carried Neo on her fist as we walked out there. The thing about Naomi is that she gives good, clear instructions. She has to be firm and explicit, because you have to do certain things to make sure the bird is calm. She told me – ‘stand in front of me there so Neo can see you’. That’s a rule I can then follow so I know where to stand. She says ‘stand still’ or ‘go over there’ and I can follow her instructions; there’s no vagueness because it’s not about being polite or anything, it’s about what the bird needs. If the bird needs you to back off, you get told to back off, without any faffing about, and this bluntness is good for me because it doesn’t involve decoding any social cues. Flying Neo was a great experience. I followed Naomi’s instructions and immediately began learning about the personality of this young buzzard, who is actually a bit of a scaredy-cat – he gets nervous and skittish around lots of customers (me too, Neo).

When, after a few weeks, I was entrusted to mind the office and interact with customers, I was initially a bit nervous. Me, interacting with strangers? Unheard of. But Naomi talked me through how to do it – how to operate the card machine, where we kept the change, where to write down the takings etc. – and I watched and listened to Beth going through it several times. You always open with the same line, you see, – ‘Would you like to see some birds today?’ and then you follow the steps in response to that. I think because it’s quite formulaic, I was able to get on with it, and still feel safe and comfortable. I also think that because I had time to get accustomed to the environment (where things were in the office, etc.), and comfortable with the other volunteers around me, it made it easier to talk to customers. And in any case there was usually someone else nearby who was supporting me if I didn’t know the answer to something. 

I still prefer to just prep the food for the birds in the back or even to clean out aviaries, but I can interact with customers if needed, which is the important thing. I often mistakenly conflate ‘I don’t like doing X / I find X uncomfortable’ with ‘I can’t do X’ –  and it’s good to remember that they aren’t the same. (Recently I had a minor crisis where I was feeling bad because I couldn’t take the bus whereas other people my age could – I had to remind myself that yes I can take the bus – just because I find it difficult doesn’t mean that I can’t do it.) 

Sometimes when it gets busy and I want to keep myself from getting overstimulated, I will retreat to the back (of course I first make sure there is someone else to mind the office). I like the birds better than customers. With birds, and with animals in general, you don’t have to mask, and they don’t judge you for not making eye contact (note: just like with people, I also instinctively avoid eye contact with animals). Birds are especially good, because although they can be very loud, they usually make a consistent noise – so even when they are loud, they are still fairly predictable, and therefore they don’t unnerve me.

Also I think that when you’re with animals, most of your concentration is on that animal, especially when it’s a bird of prey. There’s no room in your brain for anything except how you are treating the bird, and so I find that it’s a good kind of mindfulness, a way to fill your head with something else for a while. There’s no room to be anxious or stressed about other things when you have a bird on your fist – the bird takes up all your attention, which is good for me. In a similar way to exercise, it provides a mental reset, a time to clear your head by filling it with one thing only. 

Overall, volunteering is incredibly rewarding, and I feel that it’s helped to build my resilience as well as self-confidence. Working in the falconry centre has been a good opportunity to make new friends and it’s fun to work with people you wouldn’t normally talk to – most of the volunteers are several years older than me, and so it’s been interesting and useful to hear about their experiences. After lockdown, it’s been enjoyable to meet new people again, to go through that process of introductions, getting to know them, and building friendships. Although the days still leave me feeling worn out from the amount of stimulation, it’s a satisfying feeling because I feel I have contributed to something, and so it’s definitely worth it. Above all, volunteering has given me an insight into a fascinating world – there’s a lot to learn in the art of falconry, and my favourite part has simply been finding out the personalities of the many birds of prey we have at the centre.

Retrospective on The Guilt Complex

I posted The Guilt Complex in 2018. Here we are now in 2021, and I believe that with my few years more experience of living and existing and all that nonsense, I’ve come to have a bit more insight about my own emotions.

First of all, for anyone who looked at that post and felt that they experienced a similar thing – let me tell you right now: it gets better. I don’t know how, I don’t know exactly why, but let’s just say that maturity seems to be this intangible thing where one day you realise that actually your worth doesn’t depend on your always being in the right.

Looking back now, I can see that when I made that post about feeling guilty, it was because my sense of self-worth was wrapped up in my perception of my own ‘goodness’: I felt that all of my value came from being a ‘good’ (which in my case meant ‘well-behaved’) person. Now, thank goodness, that has changed.

Let me tell you this: you don’t have to be ‘good’ to still have value as a person. It seems simple written out like that, but I think it’s a difficult thing to realise. At least for me, no amount of reassurance ever really made it sink in. I think that I had to hit a certain milestone in life experience before it clicked. You can preach all you like, be told and repeat all of those grand sayings: ‘everyone makes mistakes’, ‘it’s not worth worrying about’, ‘nobody’s perfect’ etc. I parroted those things myself – I even thought that I believed them. I realise now that I didn’t – not really. They just hadn’t sunk in. It takes time, until one day, very subtly, something just clicks.

And so one day, you wake up, and when you think about that embarrassing incident which always made you feel really guilty before, suddenly it doesn’t feel like that anymore. You find that somewhere along the line, between those late-nights where you stayed up cringing thinking about it, you’ve forgiven yourself. And it doesn’t hurt anymore, at all.

I believe that, among other things, is what maturity is. It’s a strange thing, really. It kind of sneaks up on you, and then suddenly you happen to look back and you realise that you have actually grown a lot as a person. Let me tell you, it’s a good feeling.

This got me thinking about a lot of other proverbs that we all like to quote, but which we might not actually be convinced of. Another of mine was ‘the world exists in shades of grey’ – with my style of black-and-white thinking, I was often told this. I thought that I understood it – once you decode the metaphor, it’s a simple enough concept: life and morality are nuanced. People are flawed, we are all human. Not everything can be a simple dichotomy between good and bad. The world is not black and white. I heard these statements, and really thought that I believed them. But I didn’t really – I don’t think I had the maturity yet at that point in my life. Maybe I’m not there yet even now, but there’s a hopeful optimism in knowing that things that affect you at certain parts of your life will not affect you forever. It seems obvious now, almost clichéd, but that’s the beauty of hindsight, I suppose: we all change and grow as people. That’s why I think it’s good to look back on things, even things like this blog, which has made me cringe a few times, because it lets you recognise your own patterns of thinking – a sort of reflective mindfulness, if you will – which is truly very valuable.

Look Who’s Back

Hey! I’m back! How is everybody? It’s been a while since I’ve touched this blog, frankly because I’ve been preoccupied just living. But I’m making a return to this blog with the renewed goal of continuing to share my experiences and advice for managing asperger’s syndrome.

From now on, you can look forward to (hopefully!) more regular posts. I plan to post at least once a month, so we’ll see how that goes.

I’m going to start by doing some retrospectives on my existing posts – honestly, re-reading through the thoughts of my eleven-year-old self has been quite a treat – and hopefully my newer, wiser self can provide some better insights. I also plan to record some of my experiences with volunteering, and my experience of a Cambridge University residential trip. And of course I’ll be doing lots of updates on strategies for how to cope at sixth form.

I’ll also be posting some content related to my own interests. For example, short stories I’ve written or thoughts on books that I’ve read; some of which will be explicitly related to my aspergers, some of which will just be my own opinions on things. I’ve found that being on the spectrum influences every part of my life, as I view everything through a neurodivergent lens, and so recording my reactions to things and the topics that come up in my own fiction has been useful for me in spotting patterns in how my aspie brain works, and I hope this may also be of interest to you.