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.

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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.

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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.

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The Anxiety…

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Where do I begin? Anxiety is a very troublesome emotion, but is one that varies hugely depending on the individual. For me, anxiety is usually a growing sensation of being on edge, but can also be a feeling of detachment, and surrealism, which in turn creates panic.

The latter sensation often occurs when my routine is interrupted. For example, recently my school was closed due to the snow. As much as I was relieved and happy to get a day off and have fun in the snow, for the rest of the day, I felt quite disconnected – like things weren’t real. This wasn’t a pleasant experience, and it also led to a lack of focus on my part, as I felt like I almost couldn’t remember what day it was because nothing was fitting with the routine. The feeling of detachment also made me panic – it reminded me all too much of a similar feeling I get when I’m dreaming a nightmare but I can’t control it.

The former, however – the sensation of being on edge – I most commonly feel when I am surrounded by lots of people. It’s just your classic feeling of nervousness, and any person who is shy or introverted will have likely experienced it. When I get anxious, a lot of the telltale signs appear: walking on tiptoes, looking down, fidgeting and also that subtle stiffness when I move.

In situations like the one directly above, there isn’t always necessarily a solution. I tend to either seek out a distraction (e.g headphones, reading or even chatting with close friends or family if they are present), or to make a game out of it; pretending I’m on a mission to infiltrate a building or street and I have to act natural in order to remain undetected. It’s a little childish, I’ll admit, and I don’t use that strategy often, but thinking of it that way can sometimes help calm me down, because it’s a challenge to solve that I can think about in the same way as a puzzle, rather than dwelling on how many people there are and panicking about what to do if they approach me.

Anxiety, as I have mentioned before, is yellow in my eyes, and when I experience it, I often find it causes my mind to race, and the music track going round in my head almost always speeds up. In previous posts, I said it felt like the floor had dropped out from beneath me. That is partly true, but that is more when I am worried I have done something wrong, rather than just being nervous. So in a way, to me, anxiety has three meanings.

The Guilt Complex

Guilt-Cake-is-yummy

As an aspie, I have a really strong sense about right and wrong, which is sort of strange considering that I know that good and bad are relative terms created by humans to label themselves and encourage behaviour that is beneficial to an individual or society, and discourage that which isn’t. Sorry, I’m rambling. But the thing is, with my good conscience, also comes a ton of guilt if I ever do anything ‘bad’. If I ever do anything wrong, I will obsess about it for weeks, even months and if it’s particularly bad, I will still wince over it years later. The following days after an incident where I get in trouble, it feels like my stomach has been cut out, and there’s just a hole left. A hole that is continually growing and threatening to consume me. I know that may sound dramatic, but that is honestly how it feels. After a while it deadens, until the only time it really hurts is when I remember and get dragged into that depressing memory. I’ll end up thinking about it, usually late at night when I can’t sleep, and the hole through my stomach will start growing again, but then I can’t stop thinking about it. I recall a long time ago, where I listened to a parody version of a song that was often on the radio. However, the parody that I listened to contained swearing – nothing terrible, but still – but my younger self didn’t recognise it as such. Oblivious to the obscene profanity, I quoted the song lyrics to my mum – with my grandparents present as well. My mum, ever the kind one, quietly took me aside and informed me that the words I was singing weren’t allowed. Even though I hadn’t been aware of what I was doing, I still felt tremendously guilty, and this did result in tears. The worst part was, the song that I had listened to the parody of was very popular, and so was played on the radio frequently. Every time the song came on, I would be reminded of my accidental swearing, and that guilty feeling would open up. It still makes me cringe a little when I hear it now, although I do agree it is a good song.

Guilt is probably the worst emotion for me. It’s the one that hurts the most. If I had to associate the emotion with a colour, I would say I’ve always thought of guilt as a green, sometimes brownish yellow colour. I can offer no explanation as to why; that’s just how I think. And to reiterate myself, the emotion just feels like a hole in my stomach, although it often is accompanied by anxiety. Anxiety is a somewhat similar sensation, a gaping, pulling feeling as if something is missing; it feels like the floor has dropped out from under me, and I’m just falling. Anxiety is definitely an electric yellow, and that’s why I often associate guilt as such, because the two are paired.

As far as I am aware, there is no alleviation for guilt other than time or reassurance. If you have any coping , I’d welcome some comments!

Day at school as an Aspie kid

As an aspie kid, even regular activities such as being at school can be incredibly stressful.

As I enter the school gates, I can sometimes feel anxious simply because I am unsure, even after 7 years at the school.  Am I late? Early? I will glance in the window and discover if any classmates have arrived already. This helps to give reassurance that I am doing the right thing,

After hanging up my bags, and having a momentary conversation with a few classmates in the cloakroom,  I am often reluctant to enter the classroom first. I feel this is a result of previous entries when my teacher has greeted me in the morning.  I dislike it when this happens because I am never certain how to respond. Usually I will mumble a response and attempt to smile away any uncertainty, but it is important to know that I don’t mean any offence by not looking in your direction and not responding confidently.  It is normal for me to avoid eye contact and looking at other people’s faces.  It is important that my inability to obey the phrase ‘look at me when I’m talking to you’ is understood.

During lessons, I become most confident being left to focus on my work. Maths is by far my favourite subject, mainly because I feel I excel at it.  Knowing that I’m doing the right thing is very reassuring for me. However, sometimes direct instructions and questions that are aimed specifically towards me can be a problem .When teachers ask me questions it is far better saying ‘Erin, can you pass me that book?’ rather than ‘Pass me that book please Erin.’ This is because I can become over absorbed in an activity, (especially when reading) resulting in me blocking out any other sounds, until I hear my name. If the question precedes my name, I don’t hear the question I only hear my name. Then I worry because I know I have missed something!

Lunch time can demonstrate a large issue for me; as an aspie kid, I have an enormous sense of right and wrong, therefore, if someone else is misbehaving or just pushing in the queue I can become tense. At times I can actually feel scared. I can’t anticipate when that behaviour will reach its limit. However I will rarely inform anyone else about this during the school day. When I become tense or stressed, I struggle to release my negative emotions which results in me becoming irritable and preferring not to speak. I find that all these emotions just hover in my stomach which leads me to occasional tears and a complete breakdown.

I have a canopy in my class room that I can retreat into but still feel part of the class and importantly, still hear the lesson the teacher is giving. I prefer it this way rather than having to walk out and then worse – back in to the class with everyone looking at me. I need time out to process things – usually after break times because they are so busy.

Home time brings relief to me; if I have been stressed at school I will release all my emotions in the car, explaining it to my mum and calming myself down.

The promise of a new day is a huge consolation; sometimes when something bad happens in the morning and I cry or become deeply annoyed and upset, I just want to start the day again. In my mind I have the concept of every day has to be a good day, and I class days as good, bad, really good, really bad etc. This may seem illogical but I enjoy it. However if a morning has been upsetting, I can become irritable and upset at school for I feel even if I do brilliantly at school today, it can’t be a super good day because I’ve had a bad morning.

I love school. I love learning. It really pleases me when I have done something right. My advice for helping me would be fairly simple: Try and get to know me. Give me praise to boost my confidence – which is low at times. Realise that even though I may be functioning ok, I may actually be in pieces inside. Know that it is impossible for me to keep eye contact with you without it causing me physical discomfort. Try and pick up on my signs that I am uncomfortable –Do I look stiff when I walk? I can’t tell you I am upset about something, but the signs are all there. Teachers will rarely see me upset because I contain it all until I release it at home time. If you notice that I look tense and you understand the reason, the best thing to do is explain things to me gently (if you can, try to make it funny and get me to smile) and reassure me that I’m doing the right thing. This helps me to calm down and become happy again.