The bond between an Aspie and her cat

I often say that there is nothing like the bond between an Aspie and her pet. This is true for a lot of people I know and it is also true for me. Autistic people, and especially Autistic women, often have a strong affinity to animals and the natural world. Different people have different preferences for which animal they feel closest to. I have friends who love their horse, their dog, their guinea pigs and their snakes. For me it has always been cats. I have shad a few cats over the years, My first was Smokey – a less-then-imaginaively-named grey tortoiseshell kitty girl who was not particularly affectionate but loved playing and was quite good at keeping down the mouse population on my dad’s market garden. When I moved out of home, I acquired a Russian forrest cat called Sensei (I was doing martial arts at he time, hence the name). Sensei was regal and impressively intelligent. She became my little witch’s familiar and took on whatever mood I was experiencing. I loved Sensei more than anything and I still miss her now, twenty years after she passed away. I also had Tilly – a tabby cat who would go and visit everyone in the flats where I lived. She was authoritative and clever. She would wake me up using a variety of methods, from jumping off the wardrobe onto my bed to staring at me until I woke up, aware of the eyes boring into me and terrified that there was a seri a killer in my house.

I moved to Canberra in 2007 to start work as a graduate in the Australian Public Service. For the first eighteen months I shared a house. The woman I shared with was a very challenging person. She was quite controlling and patronising. Despite her identifying as have a disability, she was still kinda ableist around Autism, on one occasion telling me that Autistic people couldn’t manage staff and that I should stay in a junior level at work because of this. (Interestingly her own practices as a manager were perhaps not too effective. A lot of micromanagement was going on and she wouldn’t let her staff do the work for fear they would mess it up). She came across as immature and focussed on unimportant things. I disliked this woman immensely. She is the reason I bought Whimsy Manor – I longed to escape her controlling and petty clutches. This woman had two cats. Now I love cats and always have but my housemate’s cats were horrible. If they were humans I would probably describe them as arrogant and snooty. They had no affection, even for their owner. Neither of them liked pats or cuddles. I thought my housemate’s character must have influenced her cats behaviour and attitude.

Given this experience of snooty and unpleasant cats, I ‘went off’ cats for a couple of years. I decided that I didn’t want one. Sow hen I moved to my current home – the wonderful Whimsy Manor – I was determined not to get myself a title feline companion. Years ant by and I got quite unwell with mental illness. I was depressed and confused and I felt very lonely. Through my work I had befriended the Canberra cat rescue lady. She encouraged me to get a cat to help improve my mood but I made every possible excuse not to.

One day I had taken the day off work because I was depressed. I went outside to put the garbage out and found a little cat sitting on a wall. I patted him and he purred and purred. When I got back inside I realised that when I was patting the cat I didn’t feel depressed. The next day I called my cat rescue lady friend and said ‘Please get me a cat.’ That weekend my friend arrived with four carriers full of kittens. I had about ten little kittens running around my house but none of them seemed to be the cat for me. The last carrier had just one cat in it – a big black tomcat who apparently didn’t get along with the other cats at my friend’s house. He was almost an adult at ten months old. I picked him up and held him close to my chest. He started to emit deep, loud purrs and cuddled up. “Can I have this one?’ I asked and he has been with me ever since.

I called my black cat Mr Ronnie (short for Hieronymous Bosch, the medieval painter), but he soon became Mr Kitty. My mental health improved pretty much the instant I got Mr Kitty. Instead of coming home to a col and empty house, I now come home to a happy (and hungry) beautiful black cat. Mr Kitty is incredibly affectionate and is a real character. Anyone who has  visited my house will have been roundly sniffed and examined by Mr Kitty. He has an amusing habit of trying to get inside people’s handbags. Mr Kitty is as much an important part of my life as my human family members and close friends. I have never loved a cat as much as I love my little furry boy. Even my mum, whom isn’t usually a fan of cats and dogs due to allergies, says that Mr Kitty is a gift from God (and I like that God is dispensing kitties – sounds like a good thing to me). Mr Kitty was a stray and my rescue lady friend only got him a few days before he became my little man, He had been wandering around farms north of Canberra. I don’t know how much cats remember but his closeness to me suggests that he somehow associates life with me to being an vast improvement on being a stray and is thankful for that, hence the affection. I rescued Mr Kitty but he also rescued me. He sleeps in my bed at night and cuddles up next to me. I usually put my arm around him and hold his little paw. So yes, there is nothing like the bond between this Aspie and her cat. Nothing at all.

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Finding my home among my Autistic peers

Teenage and twenty-something m was characterised by one driving passion – a need to belong and be accepted by a peer group. As an Autistic school student I had suffered the all-too-common fate of being astoundingly brilliant and hated and bullied to in an equally large manner. I was always the least popular child in school. I thought that what I endured – name-calling, teasing, practical ‘jokes’ at my expense and violence – was the normal experience for a kid. That didn’t mean that I liked the situation very much and as I progressed through school I found myself feeling isolated and needing to belong to a peer group. I didn’t like myself very much and needed others to accept me to feel worthwhile as a person. I soon discovered that the only peer groups which seemed to want me were those with a defined culture: a set of rules, a manifesto, if you like, which determined how they related to others. My first peer group was the revolutionary socialists. It was very easy for me to be accepted by them – they actually did have a very clear set of rules and expectations. All I need to do was rattle off the party line and I was in!

As I finished school and moved out of home, I found myself seeking out the darker side of life – drug use, mental illness, depressing films, crime. All those years of what I imagine was quite severe bullying, plus some sexual abuse I had experienced as a young teen left me with an affinity for the darkness, the murky, death and destruction. I soon found a new peer group – criminals – and then another – drug addicts. This began five years of hell which should by any logic have left me dead or at least broken-spritied and self-destructive. All the negative behaviour I engaged in, all the addictions and self harm were essentially drawn from my need to be accepted. I suffered unnecessary violence and mistreatment at the hands of judicial and psychiatric structures and all because I wanted people in some peer group to accept me.

When I was 25 I decided to bid farewell to the negative peer groups to which I had been a fellow traveller for so long. I sought out positivity and success and I did it alone, at least in the start. I ditched all my criminal and drug-addicted friends. For a year there were four people in my address book – my brother, my parents and one friend I had met in  therapy program. I chose a lonely life. I expect you can imagine just how difficult that was for me. Despite being difficult, however, it was liberating in a way. I was going to be Jeanette for the first time. Now Jeanette the socialist or Jeanette the criminal but just Jeanette. After a couple of years there were more people in my address book. I discovered that some pole eluded me for who I was, not just because I agreed with them on Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution (or whatever).

A couple of years later still and I found myself a published author and Autism advocate. Even more people started to approach me with a view to being friends. I discovered that I tend to get along very well with Autistic people especially women. We often share some experiences and views. I would have conversations with women on the spectrum and realise that we both intuitively understood where the other person was coming from. As a somewhat extroverted Aspie I find myself drawn to other extroverted Aspie women. I have a good number of these fantastic people amongst my friends. So now, instead of four people in my address book, I have thousands of people on social media and a good number of close friends on the spectrum that I spend time with. I love having found my Autistic peer group. After all those years of ‘tacking on’ a set of belief or values in order to be accepted by a group I can now be myself AND have a peer group.

When I meet young people on the spectrum who are isolated I always try to connect them with others. If I had a peer group I actually had some affinity and commonality with when I was younger who knows how different my life could have been? My peer group now includes so many people (and a certain black cat) that I love and care about, I can hardly believe my lick. I was talking with my Mum – another Purkis Aspie – about the fact that I am unlikely to ever have my own children and that my family are geographically distant from me. My Mum said ‘Jeanette you have such a large family. You have children and friends. So many people care about you, you don’t need biological family close-by. You have your own family.’ And she’s 100% right. I hope that others on the spectrum – especially young people – can find their peer group and be as accepted as I have had the great privilege to be.

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A Jeanette painting, for some reason. I’m sure it relates….

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For interest – links to my radio shows, guest blog posts and TEDx talk

Hi good readers in blog land.

I recently attended an awards ceremony in Sydney and one of my amazing friends suggested that it would be good for me to provide a document to the public with links to everything I’ve done over the past few years. So here goes…links to all my radio shows, guest blogs, TEDx talk, radio interview on The Autism Show, book page on publishers site and so forth. All up it’s about 12 hours of material, so I would’t recommend going through all of it in one sitting, but if you’re interested, you could save the link in your favourites or something.

My favourite items are the TEDx talk, the blog for the Attitude Foundation, the radio show at the ASA conference and the shows with Alex Evans and Joel Wilson, but it’s all pretty good (I hope!). I try not to produce and substandard work, so enjoy my various things:

TEDx talk

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pqdGb4TraFk

Autism Show interview

http://autismshow.org/jeanette/

Wonderful World of Work 2 minute video for publisher

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A9XoG-dDYhI

Books

http://www.jkp.com/author/authors/view/id/jeanette-purkis-4568

Employment page on Autism Women Matter

http://autismwomenmatter.com/category/employment/

Guest blog for Aspect

http://www.autismspectrum.org.au/blog/2-x-chromosomes-mark-spot

Attitude Foundation blog for International Women’s Day 2015

http://www.attitude.org.au/jeanette_purkis

Murdoch Children’s Research Institute blog post

https://www.mcri.edu.au/users/murdoch-childrens-media/blog/resilience-vital-element-autistic-child%E2%80%99s-%E2%80%98tool-kit%E2%80%99

 Radio shows:

7 February 2015 – Emma and Jane

http://www.blogtalkradio.com/positivelyautistic/2015/02/07/positively-autistic-jeanettes-autism-show

14 February – Jeanette by herself

http://www.blogtalkradio.com/positivelyautistic/2015/02/14/positively-autistic-jeanettes-autism-show

20 February  – ASA Conference live show

http://www.blogtalkradio.com/positivelyautistic/2015/02/20/positively-autistic–jeanettes-autism-show

7 March – Dawn-Joy Leong

http://www.blogtalkradio.com/positivelyautistic/2015/03/07/positively-autistic-jeanettes-autism-show

14 March- Beck Kelly

http://www.blogtalkradio.com/positivelyautistic/2015/03/14/positively-autistic–jeanettes-autism-show

21 March – Alex Evans

http://www.blogtalkradio.com/positivelyautistic/2015/03/21/positively-autistic–jeanettes-autism-show

28 March 2015 – Ben Wilshire

http://www.blogtalkradio.com/positivelyautistic/2015/03/28/positively-autistic–jeanettes-autism-show

4 April – Joel Wilson

http://www.blogtalkradio.com/positivelyautistic/2015/04/04/positively-autistic–jeanettes-autism-show

11 April  – Tori Haar

http://www.blogtalkradio.com/positivelyautistic/2015/04/11/positively-autistic–jeanettes-autism-show

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‘I’m an A**hole!’ Oh no wait, it s cultural difference

A pervasive stereotype of people on the Autism spectrum in popular culture is that we are arrogant, rude, tactless a**holes. The perception is prevalent across all media and seems to be believed by a lot of non-Autistic people, particularly those who have not known a lot of Auties. I often find myself getting very cranky with people who respond with ‘Are they on the spectrum?’ when I vent about someone or describe rude or inconsiderate behaviour. As somebody who tries my very best to be thoughtful and considerate to others this is certainly something of a concern. And given that I am a fairly passionate advocate for the rights and respect of people on the spectrum, I find these perceptions very challenging. Most of the Autistic people I know do not go out of their way to be rude or unpleasant and most of us find it quite upsetting when people accuse us of rudeness.

So why does this happen? Why do neurotypical people think Autistic people are arrogant and rude when the Autistic person is not trying to communicate anything of the sort? The answer may lie in our different communication styles. If you look at the diagnostic literature, Autism is described as involving ‘communication deficits.’ I’m not so sure about the nature of it as a deficit thought. Rather I think that Autistic people and neurotypical people simply communicate differently. The neurotypical style seems to utilise a lot of nuance and subtlety (although some neurotypical folks claim they struggle with that too). The traditional neurotypical communication style involves a number of levels and layers of meaning within conversation and the awareness and reciprocity of things like body language and facial expressions. Humour often centres around sarcasm or dry wit and there are particular signals which carry meaning for the non-Autisitc people, like flirting. Autistic people on the other hand often communicate using the power of words without a lot of emphasis on non-verbal cues. Autistic communication is very honest and things like white lies and tact are not so easy for us to accomplish or see the point of, for that matter. This is not to say that Autistic people can’t use white lies or tact, more that it is not our default setting and we have to almost consciously engage ‘tact mode’ in order to achieve it. Our humour is often based in the creative use of language and puns. We tend to value clear, honest communication and state what we mean and what we want.

So on the one hand you have nuanced, symbolic neurotypical people who put up a  sort of barrier of protection and politeness around themselves. Then there are Autistic people who often view the neurotypical communication style as dishonest or underhanded. It is very much a case of different communication cultures and as with any cross-cultural interaction, there can potentially be problems.

I’m sure she will not mind me saying this because it is said with immense love and respect, but my mum is an Aspie and has a very strong Christian faith. As such, mum has two fairly strong drivers for honesty in conversation – her faith and its emphasis on truth and her natural ‘settings’ as an Aspie. Growing up I would sometimes marvel at the very up front things my mum said to other people. When I had a conversation about tact on one occasion, she responded that it was just dishonesty. I knew a man when I was younger who was almost certainly on the spectrum. The worst insult you could level at this man was that of dishonesty. He recalled – with some merriment – the day a friend asked him over to look at their new baby. When faced with the infant and asked what he thought, my friend responded ‘He looks like a monkey!’. You can imagine that this den;t go off too well with the parents, even if it was true.

Going back to the introduction for this article, you can see why some neurotypical folks view Autistic people as rude. We often miss their non-verbal cues and hints and we might say whatever is on our mind. However, we are not usually trying to be rude. Instead what is happening is the meeting of two communication styles which are very different.

And it’s certainly not just the domain of neurotypical people to criticise Autists about our communication. Autistic people can really struggle with the confusing and apparently rather dishonest way non-Autistic people try to get us to understand what they mean.

Neither one style of communicating is ‘right.’ They are simply different. In my mind saying one is a ‘deficit’ and the other ‘normal communication’ would be like saying that English is a better language than Italian. So instead of focussing on ‘fixing’ Autistic people’s communication or trying to make us change, having that view that it is simply a cultural difference may be more helpful. If people tried to understand this cultural  difference, it would make things easier for everyone. Instead of telling us that our honesty is ‘rude’ it is much better to appreciate us for our qualities and understand that we simple speak a different ‘language’. Then a proper cross-cultural dialogue can begin.

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Mr Kitty is direct and will let you know when he needs something with a gentle bite

How to really irritate an Autistic adult in one easy step – I’m NOT a child, I’m forty

I attended a conference last year as an expert speaker. As is often the case, I was quite unwell with mental health issues. My illness always seems to take a slightly different form and on this occasion I was not depressed or confused but I was just ever so slightly more vulnerable than I usually am. I will contrast two responses to my vulnerability. Firstly, there was an amazing young woman who is on the spectrum and is now among my friends, mostly because of what she did at the conference. This woman supported me by doing all sorts of things. She helped me use the public transport in the city where I was. She realised when I needed some space and gently steered me towards the quiet room set aside for Autistic attendees. She even bought me a can of Coke on one occasion. There was no paternalism or judgement, just one woman seeing a need in another and assisting. This young woman became a positive enabler and turned what could have been a very stressful experience into something which I enjoyed. My talk was well-received and I had a great time.

In contrast, I had another memorable interaction with a conference volunteer, one which was not quite as helpful. On the first day of the conference I left partway through the first session because I found the content triggering. I was seated near the exit so I didn’t think I bothered anyone by slipping out. I went to the Autistic attendees’ quiet room and played with my phone. A little while later a couple of the non-Autistic conference volunteers came in. I had a nice conversation with them but it seemed a little odd. It soon became apparent that we were speaking at cross purposes. I was forty years old speaking to adults but they seemed to think they were adults speaking to a child. At one point one of the ladies asked ‘So Jeanette do you live at home with your parents?’ I may have been a little mentally unwell and vulnerable but I am an Autism advocate nonetheless. I responded strongly with ‘I live in a house which I own. My parents live in a different state. I haven’t lived with them for twenty years.’ But this exchange seemed to confirm something I had been aware of for some time – some non-Autistic people view adults on the spectrum as if we were children.

A lot of my adult Autistic friends also have this experience. It is very irritating, even invalidating. I have lived independently for most of my adult life. I work in a professional job where I have quite a degree of autonomy and responsibility. I have a mortgage and people seek out my opinion of issues related to Autism. I am the author of a number of books and am considered an expert in my field. I host a radio program. I have been described as a genius on a number of occasions and I have a Masters degree. How then is it possible for people to see me as a child? I have a number of Autistic friends who are parents themselves and yet they are still treated as if they need a grown up to help them do things which they have been doing successfully for years.  These people are hardly children and are rightfully annoyed when people treat them as such.

The other thing to remember is that many people on the Autism spectrum have had some very unpleasant life experiences. I know people )including myself) who have been victimised and abused, people who have been in institutional settings such as psychiatric hospitals, children’s homes and prisons. Most people who have been through such horrors are seen by the rest of society as maybe having had to grow up too quickly but Autists like me still find ourselves being infantilised, despite these things.

I do not know why this infantilising happens. I’m sure there’s someone writing a PhD thesis about it as I write (and if there is and they read this, I’d like to see that thesis :)) The fact is that it happens and it is invalidating and downright rude. For people who have experienced life as adults and have a lot to contribute to the world, being treated as if we were eleven and asked whether we live at home with our mummy is extremely irritating. People on the Auitsm spectrum do all the adult things that other people do. Things like

  • Drinking alcohol
  • Enjoying sex
  • Having children
  • Driving cars
  • Having the whole range of sexual preferences and gender identities that neurotypical folks do
  • Going to work and work in a variety of different roles, including managers and CEOs
  • Being role models and mentors
  • Studying and working as academics
  • Owning property
  • Running their own business
  • Making decisions affecting their own and family members’ futures
  • Participating independently in sports and leisure activities
  • Choosing a faith
  • Being involved in politics and civic life
  • Doing every other thing that other adults do.

If you want to irritate and be dismissive to an Autistic adult, treat them as if they were a child – you’re pretty much guaranteed to succeed in your aim. However, if you want to show respect and make the most out of our talents and skills, please treat us as responsible adults.

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Me being, y’konw grown up. I’m probably liaising with a publisher or something…