My struggle with Philosophy and Belief (PB/RE) –Part 2

person holding pencil writing on notebook

This is a continuation of the series of blog posts about my journey with Philosophy and Belief at secondary school and how I feel my personal faith (and lack thereof) was shaped by my experience of being autistic. In this second instalment (you can read the first post here), I’m going to describe my experiences in Years Eight and Nine. This post will be slightly different to my last one, as I will detour away from just talking about the philosophical issues I had, in order to discuss the circumstances of PB lessons, particularly in Year Eight, and the strategies we developed to manage my difficulties in PB, both inside and outside of the classroom. I hope these solutions may be of interest to those on the spectrum, or their carers.

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My struggle with Philosophy and Belief (PB/RE) – autism, religion and existential crisis. (Part 1)

So, as the title suggests, I’ve had several struggles with religion and philosophy which were undoubtedly informed by my autism. A lot of these revolved around secondary school Philosophy and Belief (PB) lessons, but they also influenced my home life and my internal spiritual philosophy. I did some research online and found that many autistics have struggled with similar things, and so thought it might be useful to finally share my experiences on this subject.

This is going to be a long account — originally I planned to split it into two parts, but now I see it’ll probably be best if I go year by year over the course of my school career — I haven’t finished editing this all yet, so I don’t know how many parts there will be (I’ll update this post when they’re all done), but I plan to cover my entire journey with philosophy and belief, right up to the present and my current attitudes towards religion and spirituality, exploring how I’ve found my peace with it and how my autism has influenced my experience. This first part will first provide some background of my early education, and cover my first year at secondary school (joining year seven) and my first interactions with PB in a classroom setting.

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Trip to Hull with Asperger’s, and How To React to Autistic Stimming.

Hello again! Apologies for my tremendously long hiatus (I exist in a perpetual losing battle with procrastination!) but hopefully there will be some more posts coming out soon to make up for it. So, this post is one I’ve been planning for a while. It’s going to be quite similar to my last post about being in Spain — it’s another one about my experiences going to a new place, and how I dealt with things like anxiety and stimming on the journey there and some interesting things that happened once we got there.

The trip itself was incredibly enjoyable. Part of writing these blogs means I get to look back on my own previous experiences, which offers a nice opportunity to self-reflect and also allows me in hindsight see just how much more I can cope with nowadays. In the past, journeys to new places, especially on public transport, could be very overwhelming and stressful for me, as there are so many uncertain variables. But this time, I was quite confident getting on the train with my mum there to help me, and for the most part was able to stay nice and calm despite all the bustling and the noise. It just goes to show how with time, and with the right strategies in place, you can become more comfortable approaching anxiety-inducing situations, even if the physical elements like the noise and the sensory stimulation are still difficult. Comparing this trip to my trip to Spain, which I wrote about here, the train station was certainly much easier to navigate than the airport — the ticket booths are right in front of you, the platforms are much more clearly signposted, there are arrows on the floor, etc. — and because the train station was smaller and more enclosed, without so many windows, it was easier for me to get my bearings. Having my mum there also helped a lot — she is absolutely my rock and can keep me feeling safe in practically any situation. And so I was quite happy just sitting with my noise-cancelling headphones on, waiting for the train. Once we got on and sat down, I felt even better; now I just had to sit in the same place, and there’s less uncertainty when you don’t have to move around.

Of course, we still had to change trains, but I managed fairly well, I just stayed close to my mum. Overall, the journey was fine, and once we got to Hull we were quickly found by my friend and her family. My friend is very chatty and I have a good time with her, partly because she is good at carrying a conversation and I am good at listening — having someone who is happy to talk is good for me because it takes some of the pressure off of me to try to come up with things to say. Moreover, she knows all about my Asperger’s and is very understanding and patient if ever I don’t understand something she’s said, or if I say we need to go somewhere else because its too loud.

On the whole, I had a lovely time staying in Hull. As I have undoubtedly mentioned in a previous post, having a person who you trust with you can mitigate anxiety, and so as me and my friend went around Hull I was confident that she would be able to help me if anything unexpected happened.

There was, though, a notable instance at a restaurant which I think is worth mentioning here as it relates to my ASD. One night (we stayed in Hull for a couple of days) we all went out for Thai food. The restaurant had lots of interesting decoration to look at and varied lighting, (i.e. it was rather visually stimulating) and naturally, as it was new place and I was fairly excited, I started stimming. As I said, my friend knows about my Asperger’s, and since I’ve been to her house many times, so do her parents. For that reason, I’m quite comfortable stimming in front of her and her parents — her father is also a teaching assistant and is used to working with kids on the spectrum, and we’ve talked about stimming before.

My stims on that evening mainly involved tapping my fingers against my palm on one hand, up close to my ear so I could hear the sound they made, in addition to a kind of twirling motion with my wrist. My friend’s father commented on the stim, saying it was like a dance move. This actually made me realise that I had picked up this particular stim after watching my younger sibling do a primary-school dance production where they twirled their hands in a similar way. It’s actually quite common for me to pick up stims this way — if I see someone else doing a movement, I’ll sometimes copy it and if it feels positive then it can become a stim that reappears later. This also means that when I watch other people stimming, it can often set off my own stims, or I end up copying theirs. This also applies to vocal stims — in addition to echolalia, I’ll often pick up phrases or ways of pronouncing words from people that then manifest as stims later on.

Now, going back to the situation at hand: as a general rule I would say don’t comment on someone’s stimming, unless you know them quite well and think they’ll be comfortable with it. If they express that they don’t want to talk about it, then obviously you should just let the subject drop. Basically — react how they react. I’ve heard some people who experience tics (which can appear similar to stimming except they are usually more involuntary) give the advice that it’s best when other people react how they react — one youtuber who I used to watch, who had Tourette’s syndrome, said she often laughed at her own tics when she found them amusing, and was fine with her friends laughing too in those cases, and I generally have a similar attitude towards my stims, but obviously this varies from person to person. Some people are more comfortable discussing their stims, while others prefer it if their stims are just ignored. So I would say react how the stimming person reacts. Also bear in mind that stimming is not always a conscious choice or under a person’s control (neither are tics). I know that I personally don’t get to always choose which stims I do — often I try to redirect my stims from something disruptive to something more discreet, but it doesn’t always work — and I think if people I didn’t know were commenting all the time it might make me uncomfortable. Sometimes people around me who don’t know I’m autistic react with concern — I’ve had several people ask me ‘is your hand okay?’, when I’ve been hand-flapping, which is a perfectly fine question to ask me, and I am happy to explain. Just be polite and respectful, and you can’t go too far wrong, but also remember that an autistic person doesn’t owe you an explanation of their stims. If you’d like to know more about stimming, you can check out my post on stimming here. In this case, with my friend’s dad, I didn’t mind at all; the comparison to a dance move made me laugh, and, like I said, it actually helped me figure out the origin of my own stim!

Anyway, I was stimming through my hand in an attempt to avoid another stim, which manifests as a forceful kind of blink that just happens again and again. Unfortunately I was unsuccessful, and the blinking stim happened anyway. Then a moment came where it felt as though I really lost control of the blinking stim, hardly able to open my eyes at all. Feeling overwhelmed, I put my head in my hands and rubbed my eyes to physically try to displace it, as though I could rub the stim off my face — it sounds silly, but that’s the way it felt. After that, the stim calmed down again. Nowadays, I call it ‘rebooting’; when a stim starts to feel out of my control, more like a compulsive tic that while no doubt relieving internal tension is starting to cause me a level of agitation, I take a moment of pause. I stop trying to repress the stim, I let the mask drop, I stop thinking about whatever is happening around me, and I just breathe and focus. This moment usually takes barely a second, but it’s usually enough to calm the stim down, and then everything is fine. So if anyone else struggles with this, with stims becoming distressing because they feel out of control: I recommend just taking a moment for yourself to concentrate on acknowledging your stims. Obviously this may not work all the time, but for me, I often find the tension comes because I’m trying to repress the stim, which only makes me more aware of it and then causes it to happen even more. Instead of trying to restrain it, if you are in a position to do so, I suggest letting yourself do whatever you feel you need to, and then usually the stims can become a bit calmer. It’s important to remember that stims arise from internal tension, so if you are stimming a lot its usually due to too much internal tension which your brain is calling out for you to address. So for me, just taking a moment of mindfulness to acknowledge that I am perhaps over stimmed, and reminding myself that I will be able to down stim later on, is enough to subconsciously relax me enough to then be able to continue for the rest of the evening.

Other than that instance, my Asperger’s and anxiety were perfectly manageable, both whilst in Hull and on the journey home. I’m very glad it was such a good experience, but I hope by reflecting on the one instance in the restaurant I can also learn from that, and hopefully hearing my experiences helps you or someone you know too.

Thanks so much for reading all the way to the end, and hopefully I’ll have a new post up in the next week or two — I’m hoping to get this blog running more regularly again. Thanks for your patience! Please remember to share this post on social media, leave a like or follow this blog if you enjoyed or found this helpful, and leave a comment on what you’d like me to talk about next! Thanks again!

A week in Spain with Asperger’s.

Over the Easter holidays, I was lucky enough to go on a trip to Spain with my girlfriend, to stay at her dad’s place for a week. This was a trip that had been planned for a while, and I was very excited. I knew that it was likely that throughout the week I would have to deal with some overstimulation and anxiety, from all the new experiences, but from the very start of the trip we had various plans set which made it run nice and smoothly. Besides one incident of overstimulation, the trip was perfect, and even then it was handled perfectly by my girlfriend and her dad. Here’s how it went, and what I learned about managing my Asperger’s.

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Navigating anxiety and Asperger’s on a class trip to London.

My life has been very busy lately, so I’m terribly sorry for the long hiatus! Fortunately, I’m now back with a whole slew of new posts which will be uploaded over the next few weeks, about all the experiences I’ve had recently and how my Asperger’s has interacted with them. So, to start with: I recently went to London for a day with my Spanish class to watch a theatre production of the play we are studying. Here’s how I prepared for such an exciting but also anxiety-inducing trip, and how I handled it.

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The Curious Incident of The Dog In the Night-Time

So, as I love reading, I thought I’d start doing some book reviews where I focus on books which feature autistic characters, and give you my thoughts on how well they reflect the autistic experience. Obviously I don’t speak for all autistics, and my thoughts on the books are of course going to be terribly biased, but I’ll just give you some idea of how I relate to these characters and maybe some funny stories where I’ve done similar things. Note: there will be spoilers throughout this review as I talk specifically about plot and character events in order to draw parallels to my own life.

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The Art of Being Boring

If I had a £1 coin for every time I’ve been called boring, I’d have a pretty decent amount not a ludicrous amount, but enough for some new books at least. Admittedly, a fair part of what’s lead to me being called boring (including by some of my closest friends) has been my general preferment of reading over people, but what I didn’t realise for a long time growing up was that a lot of what made me ‘boring’ in the eyes of those neurotypicals around me was actually due to my Asperger’s, and the way in which my Asperger’s was in conflict with how society is set up to promote certain social activities.

Being called boring no longer bothers me, but in this post I thought I’d identify why I used to get called it so often, and how my ‘boring’ behaviour also pertains to my Asperger’s in some unexpected ways. This is really an exercise in exploring just how central my Asperger’s is to my personality. Some people don’t like to think of themselves as defined by their ASD, and that’s perfectly understandable, but I am of the belief that my Asperger’s is absolutely a core part of who I am, and in this list you’ll be able to see some of the many ways it affects me.

Monotone speaking

A lot of people with Asperger’s often speak in monotone. I definitely did this as a child, though it stopped when I was about seven years old. I think speaking in monotone goes hand in hand with more generally how I struggled to express emotion, which often made the people around me think that I was ungrateful or not passionate about anything (I talk more about the difficulty in expressing emotions in my post here). I wasn’t constantly monotone, just like I wasn’t always unable to express emotional reactions. At home, I was far more expressive than I was in public. I think this can be explained with the idea that for those on the spectrum, going out in public places, especially ones which are unfamiliar, involves a great deal of stimulation, and so my brain just couldn’t handle processing all of that information, and still manage to put on a ‘normal’ voice. In a way, it’s like masking — even now, when I’m too overstimulated, the mask slips (see here for more on masking) and I stop making facial expressions. It’s as though facial expressions and intonation are extra add-on computer programs which have to run on top of the main program, but when the main program is struggling to keep up with the basic processing required for ‘surviving’ a social situation, then all of the add-ons are entirely forgotten.

Anxiety and low-self confidence.

Anxiety and my Asperger’s have always gone hand-in-hand. This has definitely contributed to the perception that I’m boring. Low self-confidence has in the past meant that I’m reluctant to try new things, and my anxiety means I prefer the predictable to the point where to other people it borders on mundane. I also need constant reassurance when I’m doing a task to feel comfortable doing it, and a lot of supervised practice before I’m confident doing it alone, so often I prefer to let other people do the things I’m not familiar with. In science lessons at school, I often preferred theory lessons over times when we would do practical experiments, which seemed backwards to everybody else, but I preferred theory because practicals involved group discussions, and everybody moving around, and this disorganisation made me feel anxious. Even now, I still find quite regimented lessons less tiring than those which are more varied — simply because copying from the textbook, even if it’s dull, involves a lot less noise and unregulated commotion.

Repetitive behaviours

A trait which quite a lot of people on the spectrum have is that we can enjoy repetitive behaviours, and that we can therefore sometimes have a much higher tolerance to repetition than neurotypicals when it comes to performing specific tasks. For example, I heard one story of a girl who loved making origami foxes. She made hundreds and hundreds of these tiny paper animals, and where as anyone else might have gotten bored of doing the same task over and over again, she never even found her focus slipping. This can be a real strength for aspies, as it allows us to focus on tasks other people would get bored of. However it does mean that neurotypicals will sometimes find us strange for not sharing their boredom, and be surprised when we say we don’t mind doing a menial task over and over again because it’s interesting to us.

Routine

Routine is essential for a lot of those with ASD, and similar to how we can have a higher tolerance for repetitive activities as mentioned above, some of us just aren’t as sensitive to the need for variety as some neurotypicals are. There are still times when we seek out variety in our lives, and we can certainly be impulsive, but we often prioritise a feeling of security over any potential benefits of changing routine, which neurotypicals can often misinterpret as simply being rigid and static. My friends were always bewildered that I never felt a need to ‘rebel’ — but change was just not something I seemed to crave in the same way they did.

Divergent interests

Aspies have a tendency to develop special interests, or hyper-fixations, which we devote hours and hours of attention to, and we often have a desire to talk exclusively about that topic for hours on end. (Note: hyper-fixations are sometimes also called ‘obsessions’, however there are a lot of negative connotations to this word, and so a lot of aspies prefer to use ‘special interests’ when talking about their fascinations, and reserve the term ‘obsession’ for when a hyper-fixation becomes problematic, i.e. it develops to the point where it hampers daily functioning.) In general, hyper-fixations are not a bad thing — they can provide intense fulfilment for the aspie engaging in them, and if you have the patience to listen to an aspie info-dumping, it can often be a very rewarding experience, both for you and the aspie. However, our tendency to want to talk exclusively about our interests can sometimes mean we are repetitive to other people, and, due to our lack of innate social awareness, we often don’t pick up on how a topic that is so fascinating to us is not at all interesting to the person we’re talking to, who’s probably already heard this information a dozen times already. In my case, the topic of my special interest as a child was dinosaurs, and although I eventually grew out of that long-term fixation and since then have entered into a number of intense but more short-lived special interests, I am well aware I must have been extremely tiresome at times. I’ve always been grateful to my parents for having the patience to nonetheless engage with me and to encourage my passions.

Hypersensitivity to noise

This is a trait of a lot of people with ASD, and it usually leads one to seek out very quiet places, like libraries. This often means you’re not hanging out with your loud friends, or going to parties, because these places are inaccessible to you because they are simply not worth the overstimulation, or are physically painful to be in. Hence you become the stay-at-home one, the boring one, who doesn’t go out as often. For me, most of my friends prefer to hang out and study in the noisy Sixth-Form Centre during free periods, but because it’s so busy I can rarely be in there for more than an hour a day or I will find myself massively overstimulated and tired by the end of the school day. This has meant that some of my friends complain that they never see me in school, but I’m lucky enough that most of them appreciate that it’s not a choice to avoid them, the Sixth-Form Centre is just not somewhere I can comfortably stay for prolonged times. Even with noise cancelling headphones which allows us to enter those noisy spaces, an aspie may often still feel somewhat excluded, because in order to most efficiently block out the noise, we also have to block out conversation, which is why I generally prefer to use regular headphones and just have music to ground me (I’m a big fan of the one-ear-in, one-ear-out method), rather than full noise-cancelling headphones which mean I can’t properly hear my friends when I’m with them, and which subsequently makes me less talkative and engaged.

Feeling alienated from your peers

All of the above can contribute to feelings of isolation from people my age, which can just reinforce a cycle. If you don’t have many friends, it can be hard to make friends, and so this labels you as the loner, who is quiet and reserved, and again: boring. In my case, this hasn’t happened so much. I have a close group of friends. But nonetheless, occasionally my lack of innate social skills due to my Asperger’s means I can still sometimes find it difficult to relate to my peers, and so I don’t always want to do all the things that they do, which makes me seem ‘boring’ when the reality is it’s just difficult for me to navigate conversation with them, so I’d rather avoid it.

In conclusion, there are a lot of ways in which my Asperger’s shapes my personality. My Asperger’s is me — it’s the way my brain is wired. And sometimes, I know that I am boring. But I think what matters is that because of my diagnosis, I know that sometimes when people claim I’m boring, or that there’s something wrong with me, I know that it isn’t me that they’re taking issue with, it’s my Asperger’s. My Asperger’s is an explanation for why I don’t like noisy parties, and why people sometimes find me boring. And it’s made my life much easier to have that — not as an excuse, and I certainly don’t use my Asperger’s like a scapegoat — but it’s an explanation to satisfy my own mind; context which I can use to make sense of my world and people’s reactions to me.

Thanks for reading, I hope this was a helpful insight into some aspie behaviours. If this has been in any way informative to you, please like, comment, or share on social media, and follow this blog for more similar content.

Intense emotions and advice for comforting people with ASD.

The way in which my Asperger’s probably affects me the most is through the way in which I experience emotions so intensely, and for longer periods than neurotypicals appear to. Ever since I was a child, I’ve often struggled to get out of a sad mood once something has upset me, and this has meant that often attempts to make me feel better quickly have not been effective. So I thought I’d give a bit of an explanation of this, and some advice for those who are looking for better ways to offer comfort and reassurance.

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Autistic Stimming / Self-stimulatory Behaviour

Stimming, or self-stimulatory behaviour, is defined as repetitive, rhythmic actions that a person engages in as a way of releasing emotional tension. Importantly, it isn’t exclusive to those on the spectrum! Everybody stims, including neurotypicals: bouncing your leg when you’re anxious or concentrating? Fidgeting? Jumping up and down with excitement? Chewing a pencil while you do your homework? That’s all stimming, and it helps you release internal tension.

The stimming of people on the spectrum differs only in that our behaviours (‘stims’) are often more visible. This is because of the way our brains work; for example, autistics are prone to taking in a lot more stimulation which can lead to a greater build up of tension which we need to release. As a result, our stimming can be more visible, and is often deemed less socially acceptable than the normalised behaviours which neurotypicals engage in. Unfortunately, this frequently leads neurotypicals to think that there is something wrong with us — they think we are being rude when we make loud noises, or flap our arms around.

In an effort to combat this misconception, I thought I’d give a review-style explanation of some of my own stims, explaining a bit about how they feel, and why I engage in different ones. Different people have different stims, but there are a few common ones, including hand flapping, yelling, rocking and clapping. Most of mine are quite discreet, but they are still essential for me in releasing emotional tension. I’ll talk a bit more at the end about what you can do about stims, and hopefully I’ll be able to explain why stimming (as long as it’s not self-injurious) generally shouldn’t be restricted.

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Feeling the Mask Slip – an autistic perspective on Overstimulation

You’re probably wondering what snakes have to do with overstimulation and autism. Well, let me give you a little analogy to help explain what overstimulation feels like, and why for me, as someone who is hypersensitive to sound, maintaining a ‘normal’ face in conversation is sometimes difficult.

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