Everyday Aspergers – Interview With Sam Craft

Everyday Aspergers – Interview With Sam Craft

Earlier today I interviewed autistic writer and artist Samantha Craft whose recently completed book, Everyday Aspergers, brings together her reflections and experiences of life on the Autism Spectrum.

Alex Forshaw To begin, your book grew from your blog posts on Everyday Asperger’s. What first inspired you to write about autism?

Samantha Craft My middle son, who is now 17, was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome when he was 5 years of age. I’d learned a lot about Asperger’s through him and literature. When I started a second Masters Degree (which I didn’t finish) in Counseling, I was required to seek out a therapist as part of course work expectation. I asked the therapist I found if she thought I might have ASD. She was adamant that she thought so. From there, I had an abundance of emotions about the ideas of me being autistic, and needed a place to process what was going on inside my head.

AF I’m guessing that you suspected you had ASD based on what you saw in your son? Similarities between the two of you?

SC I’d always felt out of sorts, different from my peers and even from adults. I’d sought out answers for years from people in authority, such as therapists, priests, psychologists, teachers, and so forth. I didn’t know why I was the way I was. I didn’t connect the dots that I had Asperger’s when my son was diagnosed because very little was known then and what was shared was very stereotypical and didn’t make sense to me, such as: no empathy, no imagination, no creativity, etc. It took me a long time to connect the dots between my son and myself. He manifested his autistic traits differently as he was a child and a male and in a very stable home. In comparing our childhoods, there were a lot of environmental factors that influenced how I behaved. Similarities, now, are numerous and profound. Especially our need for time alone, limited expectation on others, keen interest in creative writing, deep philosophical thinking and discussion, ability to think outside of the box, and confusion over certain societal hierarchies and cultural standards. But these are not common things you find in an ordinary text book or article on ASD. These are things you find in real autistics leading real lives.

AF You mention the stereotypical nature of much of the literature about autism, and that it is removed from everyday life. Can you give me some examples where your book covers topics that you’d have found most helpful at that stage in your life?

SC Yes, and let me point out first, please, that I would add the word “falsehoods” or “false” to those stereotypes. I have corresponded with many people who are on the autism spectrum or believe themselves to be, and they are for the majority, let’s say 95%, extremely empathetic, kind, compassionate, passionate, insightful, and highly creative and imaginative. These stereotypes are largely based on the observation of autistics—largely on how others who don’t have autism think about autistics and not on the real voices of autistic people.

AF That’s a very good point.

SC It is hard to think of my book in “topics” as I don’t generally write that way. My blog was largely inspired by how I was feeling during that day, and what I felt needed to come out of me in order that I might be able to breathe. Typically I began writing my posts without knowing what I would say or even truly how I was feeling. The writing was my way of getting out my thoughts and ideas. Interestingly, at least a thousand people have written to me to say that I have read their minds. When in actuality, I tend to think they all jump in my head and I have to spill out what’s going on in there. Like a Jungian Collective Unconscious of Aspies swimming in my head. But back to your question, the whole book works as a whole. I cannot separate it into parts of most useful or least. For me, it depends on the given day, how I might be feeling, how I might have been triggered. It’s 150 posts ranging vastly in subject matter. Mostly, for me, it is about community and connecting. For others to be able to see their self in me and for me to continue to see myself in them. For others to know we are in this life and this journey together.

AF I find it interesting that the way you describe your writing sounds a lot like the way I write myself, with the act of writing itself being the catalyst that teases the thoughts into some kind of shape.

You say you see your book working as a whole, and that it is about others seeing themselves in what you have written about your own life and experiences. I know that my big “Aha!” moment was on reading some posts on a blog and realizing that the author could have been talking about my own life.

SC Yes, what you said; that’s it exactly. The act of writing itself is a catalyst. I often just type what I hear in my head. I can hear a still, calm peaceful voice whispering the words to type. It’s a very healing process. I am glad you had that Aha moment. I actually use that phrase “Aha!” in my book a couple times, at least. It’s amazing when we find a collective that understands us and sees us, especially after many of us have felt either entirely too visible in a way in which we were misrepresenting our own selves or misinterpreted by others, or entirely invisible, with thoughts of being isolated and misunderstood.

AF My own experience tells me what other autistic readers can get from your book, but how do people who are not on the spectrum respond, and what can they gain from reading it?

SC I like to say, or rather giggle when I say, “Most of my best friends are neurotypical.” And that’s the truth. I have been fortunate to know some very kind people in my life, especially in the field of teaching. I tend to keep my friends for life, if they’ll have me. Since I have some friends that are not autistic some read my writings. A few I sent my completed manuscript to. And their feedback has been that they feel a lot of what I feel. The primary difference being that I tend to experience life “turned up” or on heightened degree—I mean everything about life, from my thoughts, ideas, emotions, theories, and so forth. So, for the people reading my works that perhaps are not autistic, I would say I write in a way that is accepting of all my self, all my emotions and experiences, and in a manner that invites others to look at their own self and heart. In that, the book could easily be called “Everyday Human,” not just “Everyday Aspergers.” This is not to say that autism isn’t challenging, because clearly being autistic is very hard at times, but it is to say that I, as an autistic, have much in common with others that might not be neurodiverse. Also, interestingly enough, there have been quite a few folks, including some relatives, who ended up discovering they were likely autistic from reading my works, having not ever given it thought before or even known enough to give it thought.

I would add, too, that there are of course other major differences between my non-autistic friends and me, including the constant voice in my head monitoring social interactions, sensory challenges with all my senses, difficulty processing my emotions until time has passed, much stimming, high anxiety, and I could likely list 100 other things as well. Still, there is enough of me that is essentially human in the book that speaks to the human experience.

AF I love that response. Yes, I think it can be very easy sometimes to become so immersed in autistic culture that we forget we have more in common with neurotypical people than we realize. Though our differences, being autistic, are significant enough to affect how we experience life, we are all human and that should count for more than our differences.

Before I wrap this up, I’d like to say that one blog post of yours that I will always remember was your list of Asperger’s traits for women and girls. I particularly enjoyed the way you didn’t just present a checklist of attributes, but instead gave in-depth descriptions of living with those traits. I find your approach very accessible because it’s much easier to draw parallels with my own life when reading how it feels and the effects it has day-to-day.

SC I am pleased to hear you appreciated the Ten Traits post. That is the post that brought 1000s of us (meaning those of us who are autistic and those who support an autistic loved one) together. I recently did a YouTube reciting that post because after four years and with the coming of the book, I wished to put my tone and inflection to the words, to bring it even more life. Thank you for the kind words about my approach. I try to release all expectations, and thoughts of future, when I write. I write to write. I have a faith. I hesitate to say strong, as it wavers, that is uniquely mine and that I don’t ever intend to push on anyone, but this faith, my connectedness to source, helps me to write in a form that feels free of judgment, strong opinions, or want of anything. There is a definite freedom in my writing that others have reported, and I believe, allows for a person to be as they are without expectation of change.

AF Speaking of autism in females, do you think that we need stronger focus on how it affects women and girls differently?

SC In answer to your question, you likely know that answer.

I believe a wave has begun of autistic teachers, activists, advocates, authors, artists, professionals, and leaders and with this wave is a secondary wave of neurodiverse supporters who don’t necessarily identify with being autistic. I believe this wave will continue to build and in doing so bring increased awareness to the autism community and the neurodiverse community at large. This wave will bring to light many of our struggles, those of the autistic community, but also of the struggles of living life on this earth. It will bring connection, community, support, and a sense of purpose. It will encourage service and acceptance of differences.

This wave will naturally in its current expose the world to the autistic nature of an autistic individual. I no longer think it is about gender. As the false stereotypical traits are being eradicated by the true voices of autistics and we are seeing whether male, female, or an individual who doesn’t identify with a gender, we are alike in the way we experience autism; and in the same way we are also uniquely individualized.

I do understand what you mean by differently, with aspects to genetics and social expectations, and how girls naturally try to fit in, but in my experience, most of the men I speak with identify almost entirely to my female traits list.

AF Well put. I see this comes back to the principles of accepting differences while celebrating all that we have in common, building communities on those strong foundations. After all we are all stronger together.

Thank you very much for your time.

Everyday Aspergers by Samantha Craft is due to be released in June 2016. Please visit her website Spectrum Suite to find out more about her, her book, and a range of autism-related resources, events and links.

A Song of Ice and Fire

A Song of Ice and Fire

I’m currently reading A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin — I’ve just started the first volume of A Dance with Dragons — and I must say that I’m enjoying it immensely. There is a wealth of descriptive detail in the prose that paints vivid pictures of the vast setting of the series. The most obvious point of comparison would be the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but the semblance is only superficial.

Where Tolkien is concerned with the fight of good against evil and maintains a strong focus on his small band of heroic protagonists, Martin weaves a dance through shifting sands of uncertainty in which his extensive cast of characters behave in all too human ways, driven by self-interest, belief, revenge, lust and even, occasionally, honor. Lord of the Rings is a fairy tale where right triumphs over wrong, battles are glorious and deaths are either heroic sacrifices or the well-deserved reward for treachery. By contrast in Ice and Fire the characters are individuals, each with their own motivations, capable of anything within their own personal bounds. There is a moral ambiguity to many of the acts and the reader must decide for themselves where the characters stand. Battles are not big set pieces, regardless of their importance to the progression of the story; instead they are confused, claustrophobic, noisy, bloody melees where no single character has anything but a limited view of his immediate surroundings and plans are but chaff in the winds of chaos.

I’m in danger of making it sound impenetrably tangled and directionless but that is not the case. Martin handles the multiple threads of the story with assurance on several levels, from the interplay between individuals up to the scale of nations and dynasties. As in life, one can never know what goes on in somebody’s head, and while ofttimes his characters will behave predictably they are quite capable of springing surprises. It is said that art reflects life, and if that is true then Martin has ground and polished his mirror to perfection. As many reviewers have commented you can find parallels with many periods of history in these books. The most obvious because of similarities in the society — absolute monarchs, feudal lords, armored mounted knights — are to the European dynastic wars of the Middle Ages, not least the English Wars of the Roses. However his world is as diverse as our own and other cultures echo the likes of the Norse, the nomadic Scythians, or even the traders of the ancient east who traveled the Silk Road.

I find it staggering that one person could conceive a work of such magnitude and maintain such consistency across so many points of view. For me the only disappointing aspect is that the series is still unfinished: a work in progress. I ought to say before I finish that I’ve not watched the HBO adaptation so I cannot comment myself on its fidelity (although I’ve heard positive reports). I’m not in any rush to see it although I expect I would enjoy it well enough: I’m too enthralled by the books for now, and no matter how good an adaptation may be (I greatly enjoyed the Lord of the Rings movies) I always value the written word.

The Pictures Are Better

The Pictures Are Better

There’s a well-known saying: “I prefer radio to television. The pictures are better.” I would say the same goes for reading, perhaps even more so. When I’m reading a book I am seeing the events unfold in front of my eyes, hearing them too – immersed in the world of the story. It’s so engrossing because it’s an active involvement – I’m creating the scenes, directing the action according to the script of the book. In contrast watching television is a very passive activity – just sit back and absorb somebody else’s vision. That is one reason I often find television to be far less engaging.

Don’t get me wrong – I watch some television, probably more sports and news than anything else. I watch movies and enjoy some of them, even those like Master and Commander where there is plenty of scope for disappointment because I’m familiar with the books on which they were based. I don’t much like going to the cinema – it’s because being in a strange environment among a crowd of unfamiliar people makes me uncomfortable, but I occasionally watch movies at home. Occasionally as in once or twice a month, if that. Reading, on the other hand, is something I do every day.

Opening a book is like opening a door to a different world, one where anything might be possible. Yes, it is blatant escapism – that’s rather the point of it for me. The real world is often badly-adjusted for my sensory and cognitive needs. But when I’m in one of the worlds that I enter through the pages of a book I am in full control of my experiences: I create – imagine – all the sensations I experience in there. I know it’s not real and that’s part of its attraction – I know there’s nothing in that world that can hurt me. Provoke various emotions, yes – excitement, pleasure, sadness, apprehension – but not actually hurt me. It’s a safe environment in which to feel those emotions.

As I read the story I progressively refine my mental image of the setting, starting with a fairly generic off-the-peg one and adding new details, altering existing ones, until what I have in mind meshes with my interpretation of the descriptions in the book. I borrow elements from the props cupboard of my existing memories, tweak them a little and introduce them to the building scene. As I’m sure I’ve mentioned once or twice in previous posts I have trouble when it comes to picturing faces. So the characters in my mental worlds are almost faceless – there’s no detail to their features. I don’t find this remarkable or unusual because I am exactly the same with my memories of people in real life.

If I make a conscious effort I can imagine facial details in isolation – like elements of a photo-fit that has been taken apart. A scar on a cheek, green eyes, aquiline nose, swarthy complexion – I can see each of them in turn but can’t fit them together to produce a single image of a face. I recall details of the faces of people I know in the same way – as collections of isolated features. But I can’t generally picture a complete visage. It’s as if the whole face is out of focus and the only way I can discern detail is to concentrate on just a part of it.

I find it ironic in a way – here I am with my wonderful visual mode of thinking and my almost-photographic memory of places I’ve been… and I can’t even clearly recall the faces of most of my work colleagues whom I see almost every day, let alone invent faces to populate the worlds of my books.