What the water gave me – finding a use for adversity

I was talking with some of my colleagues at lunchtime yesterday. I have an amazing workplace and my colleagues and I get along very well. My supervisor has a young son and she was relating a story where she  was telling her son about a cassette tape she used to have with laughter on it. She said to her son that when you hear laughter it makes you laugh. Without thinking I sad ‘Oh no! I hate hearing laughter.’ I went on to explain to my colleagues that in an environment with any people – even those who I know like me – when I hear laughter I become very anxious. When I was a a child and teen when I heard laughter it was almost always coming from bullies and their supporters laughing at me for, well, daring to be myself. My colleagues were horrified by this. It was actually a nice moment because their reactions demonstrated that they really care for me. In fact one of them said she would try not to laugh. I reassured them my rather visceral reaction is always followed up by my (mostly) logical brain reminding me that nobody is laughing at me. The conversation was one of those moments where I am reminded that my experience is a bit different to that of many others.

This post is about what the world gives and what we can do with it. I’m not sure if people know Mexican artist Frida Kahlo but she was an amazing painter who used themes from her own difficult life in her work. She has one called ‘What the Water Gave Me’ (pictured), painted from the perspective of what she can see in her bath. Instead of a plastic tug boat and a rubber ducky, the water is full of memories and experiences from her life. I have loved this painting since the first time I saw it when I was about 16. Life gives all of us things, some good, many not. The positive ones often get overlooked, particularly when they are eclipsed by struggle, misery and abuse. My first thought is that that some of things life gives are lasting and will stay with us forever.

My second thought is that while those damaging experiences may well follow us for our whole life this doesn’t mean we have to be enslaved to their influence. One thing I really struggle with is school kids on the bus. If I get on the bus and find myself surrounded by high school kids or even near a couple of them, I am in a heightened state of anxiety and expect them to bully and ridicule  me. I cannot change this. I finished school 26 years ago so I think that reaction is here to stay. But when I am asked to speak to hugh school groups, I will usually say yes. When I am on stage at school assembly talking about my experiences as an Autistic student, I am filled with the same sort of anxiety as when I am on the bus with the school kids or indeed, when I was a school kid myself. But instead of letting that defeat me, I use it to reach out to kids who might be being bullied and I suppose that I  probably reach out to kids who are bullying as well and tell them how trisection felt. It is a difficult thing to do but I use the anxiety and damage done so many years ago to hopefully help others avoid having to go through what I did.

My final thought is possibly a challenging one. It is taken directly from my experience – which is what I know best. This is a difficult thing but I am far from the only person to achieve it. Adversity, suffering, misery and defeat can become the anchor point from which a better life emerges. It is hard, it requires support form others and courage and sheer determination but it can be done. I did it. And I am not really any more or less special than anyone else. For everything I did to address my past there was a motivating factor and somebody supporting me – most often my parents and a cat or two.

Twenty years ago I was a desperate person. My home was prison and it really was my home. I was terrified in the outside world. I didn’t know what to do without the rules of the institution and the other, probably more stringent set of rules which governed interactions between the inmates. I hated my life but it was safety of sorts. My limited world or four walls and the sound of keys and women yelling to each other from locked units was what I chose, several times.  At 23 my life was gone. The seeds of my wretched existence were sown though bullying right through school, sexual assault and my own anxiety and self-hated, but also my own negative world view. My isolation and alienation from the ordinary world drove poor behaviour and bad choices much in the way my passion for positive change drives my choices today.

 

The journey from there to here was not a clear trajectory. I had setbacks and made mistakes and found myself looking into the abyss many times. I mark my life in terms of the years since my release in February 2000. It is like my own personal Year Dot. When governments talk about Year Zero it is never good but for me having the opportunity to clear out everything I knew and start form scratch was so beneficial. I am not so much an exceptional person but a very determined one. I refused to allow myself back into he world of crime and drugs.

At this point it leaves me reflecting that while I did nothing good and my life was harmful to myself and others, what that dark time in my journey gave me is now of value. It has become a launchpad for who I am now. My life is like night and day. While that awful time in my twenties is something I am ashamed of and wish had never happened, I can now derive some positive value from it. I have gone from being unethical, violent and disengaged to being consciously ethical and kind. I know exactly how I want to be because I have had to make a conscious choice about what I wanted my ‘new’ character to look like.

So I guess with these things even the most appalling experience can be of some value if it is a motivation to support and care for  yourself and challenge those who would hurt and destroy you. It is that concept of using adversity as something to learn and grow in spite of. It doesn’t make the adversity OK, it doesn’t excuse people who mistreat or invalidate you or your own poor choices. It is more about accepting something awful has happened but instead of just leaving it to be horrific, you can add value to those horrors to help you on a path to a better understanding of yourself and hopefully an improved life.

Happy Mothers’ Day – why I love my mum and her ‘different not less’ parenting

I am not usually big on celebrations like Valentines Day and Mother’s Day. They seem a little bit arbitrary and a reason to sell things to people – sort of making love commercial. However a lot of people find meaning in these things so it’s not really my place to belittle the meaning they experience/ Lots of people have asked today if I will call my mum for Mothers’ day. In fact I am unable to call due to her rarely using her phone and being on holidays in Borneo with my dad and their friends. I will send an email tonight and hope she gets it at some time in the next little while.

Mother’s Day has had me thinking about all things parenting, and particularly my work in the Autism community. If people don’t mind a non-parent reflecting on things relating to motherhood than please read away – and don’t worry, I don’t do judgement! In fact judgement is one of the concerns Autistic parents face (and let’s face it probably most other parents too). Just yesterday I read a post on social media saying parents should punish their Autistic kids for having a meltdown. How many bystanders have judged – either internally or vocally –  parents of Autistic kids because the kid is having a meltdown? Judgement is so easy to do also very unhelpful. What happens if a meltdown is punished? Well as the kid almost certainly didn’t want to have it and it was a response to overload, because at the moment where overload turns into meltdown they could not control it, it wasn’t a  choice and it was certainly not poor behaviour. If something like that is punished as if it were naughtiness, then the child will probably internalise a lot of self-doubt and be more anxious – and maybe more liable to being overloaded and having more frequent meltdowns. Punishing child for a meltdown is like punishing a child for vomiting –  each process is unpleasant but needs support and love not blame and punishment.

Back to Mothers’ Day. My mum is an Autistic parent of at least one Autistic child. When I was was little I was always aware of my mum’s anxiety around parenting. She was insecure and never said anything nice about herself. As I grew older I noticed how my mum was treated by some of the other parents. Even relatives would recount apparently inappropriate things she had said and done when I was a child. In my early adult years when I was struggling to even exist, many women told my mum such unhelpful things as ‘I would have been a better mother for Jeanette’. That statement has always sat very uncomfortably with me. I can only begin to imagine what my mum and dad went through when I was my troubled former self. Surely that was bad enough without random women wanting to take me from my mum?

My mum, for the record, was the very best parent I could have had. I have seen presentations on parenting but Autistics and my family seemed to fit quite neatly into the sort of parenting style.  Like everyone else, Autistic parents tend to do some things well and find others more challenging. Autistic and non-autistic parents share this. One is not better or worse than the other, at least in any general sense. Autistic parents tend to be a great confidante and supporter for their Autistic children but they are often judged by other parents because their parenting looks ‘wrong’. Things like cognitive rather than emotional empathy and love can apparently look like they are not close to their kids. There is that other thing where parents are judged on the behaviour of their children. So if a child has ‘odd’ or difficult behaviours, the parent can be blamed, even if the behaviour isn’t negative but just looks a little strange to non-autistic eyes.

When I was a child, ‘parent’ was always a noun. Parenting wasn’t really a ‘thing’ like it is now. I can only imagine the misery my mum would have gone through these days with so many people considering themselves a parenting ‘expert.’

So here is list of some of the wonderful parenting things my supposedly ‘deficient’ mum did:

  • Listening  without judgement to me. For many years, I would watch my mum ironing – which she loves (that gene evidently  wasn’t passed on to me!). We would stand there for ages even night, me talking through stuff going on in my life and reflecting on things I had done and thought recently. There was no judgement ever.
  • When I was in my twenties and a drug addled homeless prisoner person, my mum  – and my dad – stood by me and supported me the whole time. This was not some anomaly or once-off event. This time in my life went for almost five years and my mum and dad were always, ALWAYS there for me.
  • When I was little my mum would explain what she knew of people’s motivations and social conventions which I wasn’t quite sure about.
  • When I was unwell with mental illness between 2010 and 2013, my mum came and stayed with me several times. She was just beautiful. I remember hearing her talking to the crisis team and saying ‘I am so hopeless on mental health stuff’. I then heard the voice on the other end of the phone saying ‘no, you’re doing really well.’ I suppose my mum thought she was doing badly at supporting me because she hadn’t fixed my issue but she was doing the best job just sitting with me and being there.
  • At around that time, I was i the  surgical ward of the hospital having had surgery. I was very helpless and was also having a horrible time with my errant, mentally ill  brain. One of the nurses was bullying me. I couldn’t speak but I had my phone and texted my mum to say what was happening. She came up to Canberra right away and advocated for me. When I went home she wrote  a letter to the CEO of the hospital and the outcome was that staff on that ward were sent to do mental health first aid training. My mum says if anyone is horrible to her kids she turns into a mamma tiger. I love tigers!
  • Earlier this year In invited my mum to the ceremony for the ACT Woman of the year in which I was a finalist. Having her in that audience was amazing. I don’t want to descend into schmaltzy cliches, but my mum has always been my strongest supporter and great friend.

It would seem that Autistic parenting is different not less. Thanks mum for being you. Happy Mothers’ Day.

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With my lovely mum at the ACT Woman of the Year awards this year

Finding your Why? – The value of motivation

I have spent the last few days having a wonderful time giving presentations about Autism and resilience, education to work transitions and mental health and Autism to a variety of audiences in Adelaide, South Australia. I had the absolute privilege to meet some students in a transition centre. They were there because they had become disengaged from education. They had struggled to stay in school and were at a critical point in in their life journey -would they became disengaged from society as adults or would they work towards a life where their full potential was reached – whatever that may be? My audience yesterday was about eight young men. I think they were all Autistic. With presentation to kids and teens I am acutely aware of the fidget factor – you can tell when you start to lose them to boredom and at that point it is best to either change the format or to stop altogether. I had prepared a bunch of content but didn’t think I was going to end up using much of it.

It turned out I had assessed this situation a bit pessimistically. The young people were a wonderful audience and they participated and listened for at least a hour – although some took attention breaks for a bit, which was fine. Most of them asked questions and as I only presented a little of the prepared material, most of the session involved a conversation  on employment and further study driven by the teachers and me. At the end, three of the boys wanted a copy of my employment workbook. I have never had teens wanting my books at events. It is usually their parents who buy a book and then presumably convince their kid to look at it. I was told that one student got on public transport from his school and travelled to the centre to attend my talk, despite not having been there before and knowing none of the other students. That is a big feat for any kid but for an Autistic student who was experiencing difficulties at school, that demonstrated a high level of commitment to a talk which (hopefully) would impact his future.

The purpose of this rather lengthy reflection is to frame the concept of a ‘why’. These students who were at risk of not completing school demonstrated a very strong motivation to see a presentation from an Autistic adult who works full-time in a professional job but has come from some very difficult and dangerous places prior to that employment journey. The teachers I spoke to afterwards were all incredibly impressed by this response from their students. Having given a lot of school talks I am aware the level of engagement at the presentation yesterday was quite unusual. So what makes people do something out of the ordinary like that? I would suggest that this was based i a sense of ‘why’ or as it is often called, motivation. These students may not have had that strong why to do their usual classes but an Autistic adult speaker presumably piqued their interest.

Motivation is a topic which interests me, mostly because I have a ridiculous amount of it. I have worked in my current workplace for over ten years. Apart from when I have taken sick leave, I have never – not once in ten years – woken up and thought ‘oh, I don’t want to go to work today.’ I ALWAYS want to go to work. I literally jump out of bed and get ready and go and when I am waiting for the lift in my office building think ‘gee, I am the luckiest person in the world to have this job.’ My motivation in Autism related things is also quite significant. I have made a daily meme for social media most days since 2014, I write at least one blog post a week and often some additional  articles, I have a radio show, I am writing three books at the moment – and possibly soon to be four – I do a lot of media activities, I facilitate a womens group and host a movie night, and this year I have already given a bunch of presentations and have more to go. I work full time as well. And that isn’t everything I do. For me a holiday involves giving presentations in an interesting city!

I think i have a handy combination of motivation, positive attitude and energy. Like everyone who is motivated, I have a basic ‘why’ – a driving passion which propels me to do all that I do. My current why stems from meeting a young Autistic man who lacked independence and resilience. I was horrified to see how his life was so limited, If this is what getting an early diagnosis meant, I thought, we need to rethink how that works.

Not many people know this, but before I met this your man I had not been very interested in Autism advocacy. I wrote my autobiography in 2005, under the mentorship of the magnificent Polly Samuel / Donna Williams. I was enthused when the book came out but over the next few years not much happened in terms and my work in the Autism community,  By the time I met the young man who spurred me into a need to change the world just a bit, I thought I would always be the author or a good but little known book about navigating a bunch of challenges as an undiagnosed Autistic woman. I had no great wish to be an advocate for an activist. Was was the point? I had a nice job and an apartment filled wiht art. I had overcome many of my demons. I was actually quite surprised at how enthused I became to  change things after meeting the young man.

Within months of my adopting my ‘why’ of advocacy things started to shift in terms of my work in the Autism community. I might even say that without that motivation, the kind of work I do would be impossible, We need our whys if we want to get things done!

Here are some thoughts on motivation and ‘Whys’:

  • Autistic passionate (‘special’ ) interests represent a pretty significant Why for most Autistic people. This is almost always a good thing
  • A why should not be viewed as an obsession. That denigrates it to something negative. It also makes the person whose Why it is feel bad about doing their great love and passion, which isn’t very helpful
  • I don’t think anyone can instil a ‘Why’ in another person except maybe be modelling it and the person becoming inspired
  • If young person is not interested or motivated to pursue a course or a job, they are unlikely to do well at it, or do it at all. So those students at the transition centre were told about my presentation by their teachers but if they had not been motivated to attend their level of concentration and engagement would have been completely different
  • Your Why is the point from which the motivation comes. It is less a case of ‘I want to make this thing happen which will be good because…’ and more ‘I absolutely LOVE this. In order to make it happen I will do this, that and those…’

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I’m dismissed! Where invalidation comes from and what to do about it

When I was about eleven I apprehensively went up to tell the teacher i was being bullied by some of the boys in my class: ‘Miss, the boys are chasing me and calling me names.” Miss thought for a fraction of a second and said ‘Just ignore it, And stay away from them’. ‘But they can find me!’ Miss went on to apparently more important things and I was all alone.

When I was 22, a skinny kid in hippie clothes with a faded streak of purple in my messy hair, I was in England with my parents. I was a visual artist at the time, and made the most incredible, soulful drawings. I went to a shop in the town where we were staying to buy some pastels and a can of spray fixative. I went up to pay for these things and the woman behind the counter looked at me and said ’Where did YOU get a fifty pound note?’ ‘The bank’ I said and left.

When I was 38 and a public servant, published author and home-owning middle classy sort of person I was in hospital. I apprehensively went up to tell the nurse the toilet in my room was running and I couldn’t use it. I told him four times over a period of three hours – by which time I was busting! Each time he dismissed my concern until finally coming into my room for a different reason and seeing the broken toilet. That example might seem a little incongruous  until I tell you it was a psychiatric hospital and I have a mental illness with apparently negates all the socially valued roles I have.

These three examples of essentially very poor behaviour relate to instances of my concerns – or my own self – being dismissed and my ‘me’ being invalidated. In each instance this was done by a person in a position of authority of sorts. Each represents a time I felt the power imbalance between myself and others in the world and felt ashamed and powerless.

The first example is probably a combination of the teacher / student dynamic and also discrimination about my ‘difference’ (there was no Asperger’s diagnosis in Australia in 1985). The second example is a class privilege sort of thing and maybe also some ageism and the final was clearly discrimination on the basis of mental illness. These invalidations go on all the time and for people from various backgrounds – Autistic people, disabled people and those with mental illness, people from certain ethnic groups and faiths, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and other First Nations peoples, some older people, some younger people, trans people, those who identity as Lesbian,Gay, Bisexual, Intersex, Asexual, and / or Queer, …there is a long list, but a dynamic of invalidation and discrimination exists for a lot of people.

Invalidation means treating someone as if they don’t matter, their opinions don’t count and they have no rights or say in their future. Invalidation has a number of effects on people. It can result in feelings of worthlessness, trauma, self-hate, self-destructive behaviour and things like suicidal thoughts and self injury,

I tend to think invalidation comes out of prejudice People doing it don’t see the person as deserving of respect or kindness. They really don’t matter in the eyes of the person doing the invalidating. There are different magnitudes of invalidation but it all starts from a perceived or actual power imbalance I think, a sort of dynamic privileging one person’s experience over another.

Is there a solution to this sort of thing? I hope there is. In fact there are a few ways to come at this. One approach basically entails addressing power imbalances between people and promoting respect and understanding of people from all different groups in society. This is a very large task! There are subsets of this approach happening all over the place though. My writing this blog post is a very small action to address these issues. I’m pretty certain it won’t single-handedly fix the issue of discrimination and invalidation but it will join a bunch of other writings and talks about addressing these issues. Another way to address it is to implement measures to change the culture  in institutions which are known to invalidate those under their care. This is actually quite a good way of addressing it but once again, would involve a lot of effort to get to staff members in every psychiatric ward etc. My favourite way of addressing invalidation is actually a lot less resource-intensive off the previous options. This one is also potentially highly effective. Here’s how it works:

Just in terms of Autism, think of every autistic adult, and child, every parent, partner and supporter  for those people, every ally and coworker who values their Autistic colleague. That is quite a lot of people, and probably cuts across other demographic groups as well. What if all those people were empowered to see invalidation and say ‘No! We will not have this!’ Every time invalidation was an issue those people would speak up and support one another to speak up. This is a big part of what advocacy is for. It is often hard to speak up for yourself so those in our community supporting one another  can address this invalidation is about making people feel alone and isolated, like they don’t matter. But we do matter. Clearly demonstrating our worth through advocacy so that at each moment of invalidation someone speaks up and asserts their value would turn invalidation on its head. And one person speaking up will be seen by others, hopefully empowering them to do so too.. The empowerment through advocacy can flow to other parts of life. And you know what? This is already happening. We are starting this journey together.

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