Fun With Words

Fun With Words

I feel like having a bit of fun with words and the like…

There once was an Aspie called Ben
Who suffered depression again.
He sat and he logged in
And wrote in this blog, then
He found it more calming than Zen.

On The Edge?
Between the darkness and the light
You’ll find me on the edge of sight
Watching all your interaction:
No repulsion, nor attraction.
Trying hard to follow meaning,
Engine revving, senses gleaning
Fragmentary words: no context.
Filling gaps maintains my pretext.

Can I pass as someone normal?
Am I marked by language formal?
Stilted: it can sound old-fashioned,
Pedantry ought to be rationed.

‘Cause I’m an Aspie through-and-through;
I’m just like me – I’m not like you.

Content to live outside the box
Or inside, dodging all the knocks
Caused by lack of understanding –
NT folk are so demanding!

Routines are Comforting

Routines are Comforting

Routines are a necessary part of my life – adherence to inflexible routines is one of the more common characteristics of Aspergers and other autism spectrum disorders. They serve a purpose in that they reduce my anxiety level by making me feel comfortable through familiarity – I don’t handle change well. Any change – an interruption or obstacle that prevents me carrying a routine through to completion – causes me stress that can overload me, triggering a meltdown.

I have learned to cope with some small variations in my routines without suffering much more than discomfort – a sense of uneasiness. It’s the same sort of feeling I get when I notice that books are not arranged in order. However, major upheavals will almost always set me off.

Some of my routines take the form of a fixed sequence of actions, others are behavioural rules. An example of the former: I always wash parts of my body in the same order when I shower in the mornings. A behavioural rule: after I get up in the morning I can’t eat or drink anything until I’ve brushed my teeth. (These are just two examples – I’ve got plenty more and they’re not all related to personal hygiene.)

Most of my routines either take place in the privacy of my own home or are small and unobtrusive, generally escaping notice by people around me. For example, at home I have a particular knife and fork that I always use. A more public example: when I arrive at my desk at work the first thing I always do is place my phone in a particular place on the desk, remove the USB cable from my pocket – always the left trouser pocket, uncoil it, plug one end of the cable into my PC and then plug the other end into the phone – a small routine to be sure, but a routine nevertheless.

My inflexibility also shows when something I am expecting to happen either doesn’t, or happens in a different way. It might be that my wife has asked me what I want for dinner, I’ve said something such as pasta – having a quite specific picture of it in my head – and when I get home she’s cooked something different. You can pretty much guarantee it will be a very nice meal – she’s a talented cook – but I won’t enjoy it much because it wasn’t what I had in mind. I’m still learning how to deal with this one (ten years and counting…) and I think I’m getting better at it – sometimes I’ll be very specific about what I want and other times I’ll deliberately have no expectations. Avoiding the cause of the problem is easier than handling the end result.

Eating is another good example of my repetitive behaviour – if left to my own devices I’d most likely live off spaghetti bolognese for the rest of my days – I could happily eat the same thing for every meal, every day of the year. I don’t get bored of that, unlike the average person on the street. In fact the regularity, the predictability, is reassuring and comforting. It all ends up preventing or reducing my anxiety.

Worst of Times; Best of Times

Worst of Times; Best of Times

The last few days have been a time of striking contrast. I have plumbed the cold, dark depths of sadness and soared high on bright waves of euphoria. Both Friday and Saturday nights were very low points – it was so difficult just to carry on. I don’t know how I’d have got through without the distraction of work – for those hours I could just do the job and not think about my problems. But outside of work I had nothing to occupy my mind – no persona to adopt, no mask to hide behind. And so I felt the full impact of my negative feelings.

There were a number of reasons for my unhappiness – being in situations I did not want to be in and feeling trapped, picking up strong negative feelings from somebody close to me and being unable to handle the empathic pain, shutting down in public and attracting unwanted attention when I just needed to be left in peace – it all combined into a destructive overload where I was fighting against myself to avoid a meltdown, to avoid lashing out. I was sleeping badly, not eating well and – although I didn’t realise it – becoming physically and mentally exhausted. Even watching my team (Wigan Warriors) win the Rugby League Challenge Cup on Saturday afternoon didn’t affect my mood to any great degree.

Sunday didn’t start well. However I had a busy shift that afternoon at the pub – the time flew by and I got a buzz from it. I also had some supportive feedback from the couple of “down” posts I’d published the previous nights which lifted me. So I was feeling somewhat better by the evening and, even better, relations with this person I’m very close to were considerably less frosty – this is somebody I love very much but we have communication issues from time to time when she gets very openly emotional and I overload and become uncommunicative. I know it doesn’t help the situation but it’s the only way I can handle the emotion I feel as a result.

But anyway, there were signs that things were getting back on track so that helped. And that evening I had organised an event in the pub – a darts and quiz night. It’s a measure of how comfortable I feel in that environment that I felt able to put myself forward for such an event – organising and hosting something lasting two and a half hours. I had ten teams of two competing and I was nervous as anything starting out even though I knew all the people taking part. I managed to round them all up, explain how it was going to work and get things started. After three rounds of questions I was feeling under pressure and took a short break. My legs were shaking and – I found out later – I was exhibiting a couple of tics that my wife could easily identify as signs of my nerves. I was wondering what the heck I had got myself into – why I had put myself in this situation. I felt it might be slipping out of my control. I hadn’t been able to plan the event in detail because I’d not known how many entrants there would be on the night – I was out of my comfort zone and – to a degree – making it up as I went along.

It was about ten minutes later that I got things going again with the next round. The break had calmed me enough and I felt I was getting on top of things – I felt that it was running more smoothly. Nobody had complained yet – in fact a couple had told me it was going well, and that gave me a bit more confidence. By the time we finished two people had made speeches thanking me and called for a round of applause as appreciation for an enjoyable night. Everybody there told me they had had a good time and that I had done a good job of running it. I felt pleased – but more than that I was utterly exhausted. I slept well – over ten hours – and it was Monday morning when I was feeling more refreshed that it sank in and the elation hit me. I found myself flapping my hands in the shower! I feel a real sense of achievement for carrying the evening off successfully, and I know that even a year ago I would never have been able to stand up and speak in front of a group like that – let alone direct the proceedings.

I’m not in any hurry to repeat the experience – it was nerve-wracking and exhausting – but I feel proud of myself for doing a difficult job competently and managing to handle my anxiety. Thanks are also due to the people who took part on that night and were so supportive towards me – I couldn’t have got through it without certain people telling me early on that I was doing well and giving me a well-needed confidence boost.

I Can’t Cry Any More

I Can’t Cry Any More

My tears won’t come. I feel so close to breaking down in tears lately but for some reason I just can’t do it – my eyes remain resolutely dry. Although inside I might be despairing, on the outside there are no cracks in my mask.

Only the people reading this have any idea of the pain I carry inside. I am not able to show it or speak out about it. So I write instead and expose my feelings in this way.

Few of the people I have seen over the past few days will have garnered any hint of my hurt. I have kept it inside. I can still speak to them, laugh along with them, give every appearance of being my usual self while under the surface I am in turmoil. I actively hide it these days.

One if the factors that makes handling it more difficult is that I can’t talk about how I feel to anyone. I don’t mean that there is nobody I feel close enough to; what I mean is that I am literally not able to speak about my feelings. When I am under the added pressure of oral communication the words get stuck in my throat and I can’t get them out – I become mute.

It is not that the words themselves are blocked. Rather it is that I have a flood of words running through my mind but such is the intensity of emotion accompanying them that I involuntarily shut down. I would not even be able to read what I have written out loud.

Tears, words and other demonstrations of my emotions are not something I merely find difficult: they are mentally and physically almost impossible. Instead I am sitting here into the small hours again, writing these words as my way of dealing with my emotional pain. And by expressing my feelings in this way I am better able to cope with them.

Would I Be Missed?

Would I Be Missed?

Would I be missed were I to go?
Or would memories quickly fade
Like ripples on a pond
Diminish? No resurrection
Possible from such faint echoes.

But what about the lives I’ve touched?
Shallow impressions left behind
Wear away easily.
Connection must run deeper
Than a casual acquaintance.

Living is harder than dying.
Oblivion promises a peace,
Lasting serenity.
Cessation of my suffering,
An end to pain. Ultimate rest.

My masochistic tendencies
Must be the reason I hang on
To a life such as this:
Where the future promises naught
But a monotony of hurt.

Looking forward from the bottom
Of this deep chasm of despair
I see only black walls,
As daunting in front as behind.
My way out: inconceivable.

Here I remain. Intervention
My only hope of climbing back
Up out of depression.
Throw me a line! Desperation
Will have me clutch at any straw.

I remember feeling happy
But my memory is misty,
Occluded by dark clouds,
Muted to the faintest whisper
Of the symphony I once heard.

I will curl up into a ball,
Foetal. Turn my back on the world.
Tune out, turn off, shut down.
Alone in my mind, safe from harm,
I will weather the storm in here.

Social Intercourse 101

Social Intercourse 101

Got the title. I can almost imagine the students flocking to my door. Now all I need to do is figure out the content for an introductory course in Social Intercourse – interacting with people in social settings… I think I’ve spotted the flaw in my plan here – I don’t know much about the subject. Still, on the grounds that ignorance is the first stage on the path to knowledge, I won’t let that little fact stop me. On we go!

Module 1: Choosing Your Setting
I guess a good place to start would be finding some subjects – sorry, I mean people – to interact with. What we need is some place we can just walk into where there will be other people who are not busy doing something already. (This teaching business is harder than it looks – I think I’ll leave finding the place as an exercise for the reader.)

OK. You’ve found some place with other people (well done! – you’ll have to let me know how you did it.). What’s next? Oh yes, that would be…

Module 2: Making Contact
You’re in your chosen place. Take a look at the people around you. You need to pick one to approach. It’s probably best to go for somebody who’s on their own and not involved in talking to other people – I’ll leave that scenario for the advanced class. Right. You’ve chosen your victim – sorry again, I mean subject. No I don’t – I mean person. Or do I? This is supposed to be academic – I think I’ll stick to “subject”. You walk up to your chosen subject, and…

..that’s where it starts to get complicated. I’ve got a person here in front of me that I want to talk to and I don’t know what to do next. I mean you don’t know what to do next. I am supposed to be teaching you. Don’t look so sceptical. Of course I know what to do – how can I teach you if I don’t know what I’m talking about? And what do you mean it never stopped your other teachers? Bloomin’ cheek! Pay attention class, back to business.

Does anybody know what you do next after you’ve walked up to somebody? Anybody? Please? No? OK, I’ll tell you. You talk to them. What do you mean, “what about?” How do you expect to learn anything if you’re forever asking questions? I’m just getting to that – be patient.

Module 3: Starting Conversation
Say “Hello” (or “Hi” – that might be easier; it’s only the one syllable). This is harder than it looks. You’ve got to get the volume, pitch and emphasis right. Something between a whisper and a shout is good, and it’s got to sound “friendly” rather than “aggressive”. Best to concentrate on that – it’ll help take your mind off feeling nervous.

Sorry – didn’t mean to mention “nervous”. It’s normal – everybody feels nervous when they’re standing in front of a stranger. How do you deal with your nerves? Well, that would be another class – you want “Handling Social Phobia 101”. No, I don’t teach that one. If you must know I flunked it. OK, happy now? Let’s continue…

Ignoring how you feel about it, say “Hi” to the person in front of you in a normal voice. Oh wait – I forgot – look them in the eye first. Don’t stare – that’ll make them as uncomfortable as you. No I don’t know when a look becomes a stare – do I look like an expert on “looking”? You want “Body Language 101”. (Better sign myself up on that one while I remember.)

Where had we got to? I’ll recap: you’ve walked into this place, gone up to somebody who’s not in the middle of doing something – remember not to stand too close! You’ve looked them in the eye – without staring – and said “Hi” without whispering or shouting: in a normal tone of voice.

That’s a lot for anybody to take on board. I know I’m worn out and I guess you are too. We’ll take a recess now – any questions? I’ll see you all back here for “Social Intercourse 201” – how to keep this stimulating conversation going.

But Seriously…
I’ve tried to present this in a light-hearted way, but there are serious obstacles I – and other people on the autistic spectrum – face in social situations. Approaching people and starting a conversation is hard. If I can get past the anxiety, I have to consciously think about all the “body language” things like proximity, eye contact, posture, limb position, facial expression. Once all that’s sorted I need to modulate my voice appropriately and, finally, remember what it was I wanted to say in the first place. Sometimes I’ve not got enough motivation to even start! I find that as my anxiety levels decrease it takes less concentration to handle the rest of it.

But as well as concentrating on myself I’ve also got to concentrate on the other person to try to pick up non-verbal signals. Sometimes I lose focus on what they’re saying because I find it hard to separate voices from background. It takes additional effort to fill in the blanks. On top of that there is the distraction of figurative speech and choosing between the obvious literal meaning and the learned definitions.

So much processing takes place at a conscious level that I often can’t start to consider my response until the other person has stopped talking. I find it’s manageable one-on-one, but in a group with a dynamic mode of interaction (not turn-taking like in a structured debate) there’s just too much going on for me to focus on. That’s why, in a group of people, it usually ends up with me sitting quietly, picking up fragments of different conversations going on between subsets of the group without being able to join in because I can’t handle the volume of information. Maybe somebody out there really does have a “Social Intercourse 101” for people like me. With diagrams and worked examples!

The Child Inside

The Child Inside

When I was young I was anxious in new situations, around new people. I lacked self-confidence and would always defer to authority whether that was parents, teachers – in fact pretty much anybody older, bigger, louder or more forceful. Now I am older I feel as if that nervous boy is still inside, looking out through my eyes. I have never lost that boy. In a way I am still him – my younger self – just in a bigger, older body.

It still surprises me when I get treated as a figure of influence or authority. After all, I’m still the same person I’ve always been – a quiet, mostly harmless guy who just wants to get on with things without bothering anybody and without being bothered in turn. That kind of attention – being put into any kind of leadership role – I usually find nerve-wracking. The exception is when the role is that of a technical authority on one of my special interest subjects – in that situation I am confident because I know my subject in depth (and I know the limits of my knowledge).

At times I feel detached from myself – as if I’m wearing my body like a mask, hiding inside and just peering out through the eyes. I worry about being found out. What if somebody sees me lurking in here and drags me out of my hiding place – exposes me? Exposes the fact that really I’m still just this little kid playing at being grown up? Will I be punished? And all the time there’s this undercurrent of excitement that I’m getting away with it.

I don’t see my inner child as either a good or bad thing – it’s an inseparable part of who I am. It’s the part of me that can jump up and down in excitement, hands flapping, while the outside, visible part of me remains impassive. It’s the part of me that can go into meltdown – screaming, thrashing about – while the outside shuts down. It’s the part of me that has changed the least over the years while I have learned to hide certain behaviours from the world at large to better fit in.

I’ve never lost who I used to be – I am an aggregation of self from past to present, the accretion of layers of age and experience like those Russian dolls, fitting one inside the other. And, while what lies inside appears filtered by those surrounding layers, it remains the same at heart. Here and now I am this 37 year old – nothing can change that – but I can also travel backwards in my mind and see things through the eyes of my younger, more naive self. I can still feel the same childish wonder when I experience something new and exciting. I still feel the same innocent pleasure when simply told that I’ve done well. That makes it all worthwhile for me – it’s all I need.

Touching Issues

Touching Issues

I read a comment by Emily (thoughty autie) on a post on Journeys with Autism recently that I completely identified with:

[…] if something brushes my arm, I have to rub the skin in the direction of shoulder to wrist; otherwise I still feel the thing that brushed me.

I have a number of issues with over-sensitivity to touch – this is not uncommon for people with ASD and I’ve mentioned it briefly in earlier posts. It’s because of these issues that I prefer not to be touched at all, although I do make the odd exception for something like a hug.

Any contact on my throat is a big no-no – that part of my body is far too sensitive. I can’t even wear a tight collar on a shirt because it would touch that area. The sensation of touch can persist for several minutes and I have to rub the affected area to relieve the feeling. It’s difficult to describe how uncomfortable it feels – the overstimulation is almost like a cross between a burning rash and applied pressure, as if something keeps pressing on my throat while my skin is crawling underneath. It makes me very tense and can push me into meltdown. Even thinking about it is enough to make me tense up and sends shivers down my back.

The “wrong” kinds of touch also trigger an over-reaction. These fall into categories: too light, too scratchy, too focused. A light brush against my skin sets it tingling where it was touched as if the contact was continuing, and I have to rub it – usually in the direction of the hairs – to make it stop. Anything that scratches I find uncomfortable, itchy or even painful – if somebody touches me with rough hands, if I come into contact with scratchy material (starched cotton, most wool), if I’m actually scratched by a thorn or something. In some cases I have a histamine reaction causing reddening or welts to appear – similar to an allergic response, although I don’t have any allergies that I’m aware of. And finally there is touch that is too focused, such as being pinched, prodded or poked. This causes anything from an acute pain to a dull throb at the spot that was poked – and again it can persists for several minutes. Rubbing the spot helps to a degree but I mostly just have to endure it until the sensation fades of its own accord. I even react this way to my own touch – although, being aware of what sets me off, I can usually avoid triggering an over-reaction. When I do set myself off it’s usually accidental, caused by my impaired coordination.

What I can stand – even enjoy in some circumstances – is touch over an area with moderate pressure. A hug is the perfect example of this although anything roughly hand-sized upwards is OK. I don’t like to be rubbed or stroked – caresses often put me on edge which is rather the opposite of the intended effect. I’ll often endure it because I’ve found that responding with “Don’t do that” gets misinterpreted but it’s not a pleasurable sensation.

I’ve also found that my sensitivity changes from day to day, often linked to where I currently lie on the stress scale. There are some days when almost any touch at all is too much to handle and I flinch and snap in response – as I mentioned above it can even trigger a meltdown. Other days I’m almost “normal” in my reactions – it depends on how well I can handle the tactile stimulation; whether or not it overloads me.

Love of Books

Love of Books

The smell of a new book – the fresh paper and ink – is a comforting one to me. When I smell it I am transported back to my childhood. I see myself back there, feel again the excitement of getting something new to read. In my mind’s eye I’m bouncing up and down with my hands flapping just thinking about it.

I’ll often just sit and read each new book from cover to cover without interruption – not stopping to eat or drink – glued to each page, unable to put it down, unable even to sleep until I reach the end. I’ve described myself as a book-addict – the intensity of my focus on what I’m reading is such that I will block out everything around me. Several times I can recall the onset of eye-strain because the sun has set without me noticing and it has got so dark I can hardly distinguish the words from the page.

It’s not just reading I love: I collect the books I read. I’ve never got on with borrowing from libraries – I need to know that I’ve got the book and I can go back to it any time I choose. Some of my paperback novels I have had more than 20 years and read about that many times. Some are falling apart but I can’t bear to throw them out or even replace them. And yes, I can remember them in detail. Knowing the plot of a book doesn’t put me off reading it – in fact I find the opposite is true. Once I know the outline of the plot I can focus on the detail – I get more out of a book with each reading and the familiarity is comforting.

I keep my books organised on shelves where possible or in cupboards, grouped into sets by author and/or series and sorted chronologically (either by story timeline or original publication date, whichever I feel is more appropriate). It feels wrong to me if I see that any are out of order – it nags at me and I have to fix it. When I was growing up my father bought a copy of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Just putting the volumes in numerical order wasn’t enough for me. Because I considered it to be a single, continuous work I had to put volume I on the right with volume II to its left and so on until the final volume was on the left hand end of the shelf – so that the pages were in order across the whole set even if that order did run from right to left. Possibly a little extreme even for me!

While I can visualize scenes in novels in some detail based on the written descriptions, the same doesn’t hold true for the characters. I can see a soldier’s uniform and kit, say, but there’s no recognizable face. This does cause me to occasionally get characters mixed up – they “look” the same to me. I suffer from a related problem in “real life” – somebody I don’t know very well, or even somebody I do know quite well but haven’t seen for a while, might feel familiar to me but I won’t be able to place them or put a name to them. The people I do the weekly pub quiz with can tell you how bad I am at recognizing people – celebrities – from their photos when they crop up in picture rounds.

I remember once, while I was a student, sitting in the waiting room at a station. A woman who evidently knew me from Cambridge started talking to me and we chatted for a while about people and places that were familiar to me – she obviously knew me fairly well – but to this day I have no idea who she was! I can recall the scene in that waiting room and I can picture her – tall, slim, black leather biker’s jacket and blue jeans, long dark hair – but I can’t recall her face. For that matter I even have difficulty picturing my parents’ faces – I can recall details, parts, but can’t put them together into a whole image. It particularly upsets me that I can’t visualize my late mother’s face.

But back to books – I’ve wandered off-topic (again). While I wouldn’t quite say books were an obsession to me, they definitely rank as a special interest. A long-standing one as well: I’ve been collecting and reading books since my age was in single digits. It’s partly the physical form that attracts me – this is why I don’t feel much attachment to electronic books. They might offer convenience, taking up only the space required for the reader but the so-called books don’t exist other than as data in some black box. You can’t feel them, can’t smell them, can’t hear the rustle as you turn the pages. You can’t find an old scrap of paper, used as a bookmark, tucked into one that will trigger memories of the last time you picked up that book. With the sterile electronic book there’s no physical, emotional connection. I’ve tried them and they’re mere intangible shadows of “real” printed books – they’re not for me.



A curious mixture of ancient and modern – I’m sitting here by candlelight blogging on a smartphone. I find the juxtaposition strangely satisfying. I love to write and I love the warm colours produced by the candles’ flames – such warmth that I feel cocooned and at peace.

Candles on my table

I find the light conducive to writing – it’s a friendly light and has none of the harsh, bright whiteness of incandescent bulbs or the new compact fluorescent ones. I write because I need release from stress and anxiety, and my surroundings have to reinforce that.