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 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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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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How to Handle Appointments – Advice for Aspies and their Family members.

brown rotary dial telephone in gray painted room

Appointments, doctor’s appointments in particular, can be very stressful for those on the spectrum, due to the intense social anxiety they can trigger. So this week I thought I’d share some of the strategies that have worked for me and my family, that can help make appointments, including those over the phone, run more smoothly. 

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Asperger’s and COVID-19.

The pandemic has been a turbulent time for all of us, so I wanted to talk a little bit about my experience of being on the spectrum during lockdown and how COVID has affected me as an aspie. 

Before the first lockdown, I was in quite a bit of denial about what the pandemic was going to entail. I don’t follow the news, so the first I heard about COVID was from school gossip. When my peers expressed the sentiment that the school would close due to the pandemic, I dismissed it out of hand. The school, close? That was unthinkable. School was foundational to my routines. In my mind, it was impossible that it should close…

And then we all know what happened. 

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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.