COVID-19: How to survive the survival guide

I was at first reluctant to write about this matter: you don’t need me to tell you what is happening because it’s all over the news and in our stores and in our minds the minute we step out for our daily exercise or our shopping trip for the essentials.

Many of us are not at work and are working from home, or maybe can’t even work from home. I myself work at a library and had to self isolate but the library I work at closed as I was still in the isolation period and for me working from home isnt viable. So maybe like me you’ve found yourself with no work to do, or maybe you’re trying to adjust to working from home…or maybe you’re one of the many brave people still in work on the frontline in some way. This is a hard time for everyone: and being neurodiverse in these times will also add to these already challenging times. So rather than looking at the news and the statistics and all of that I want to focus on how we can do our part to help everyone and the health service, as well as help ourselves get through it without going completely insane in the process.

  • Keep a separate place in the house. Maybe you’re in lockdown with your family or your partner and find that the times when they’d run errands or go to work/ school and you’d have time to yourself…is suddenly not happening. Rather than feeling like you have to be forced to stay in the living room all day, go into a room where you can be alone for a bit (I.e your bedroom or maybe your kitchen if you have a place in there to sit). You’ll get to separate and socially recharge without making anyone leave the house unnecessarily.
  • If you work from home try to pick a work spot. If you work from home, like my previous point, you may want a bit of social separation still and in this case to focus on work. If you can work from somewhere slightly separate from others it may help you focus and still feel like you have some kind of routine (I.e “I sit in this spot of the front room/kitchen/my bedroom for work and anywhere else in the house is not for work). Just remember: if anyone is in that spot when you want to use it that you arent rude in saying “you’re in my spot” because right now everyone is in everyones spot!
  • Keep a routine if you want to. Who says that just because you’re at home you cant have a routine still? Self isolate in a way that helps you. You can choose to do this by setting tasks (by the end of all this I reckon our homes will all be spotless from multiple cleaning sessions!), working around your daily exercise and if you’re still working you can exercise time management by balancing a work/ home life still. Going to the shop on the same day can also help as it also establish days of the week (because I dont know about you but for me the days are already just blurring a bit…is it saturday? Monday? Tuwedthursday?)
  • Take advantage of this time. This situation is horrible right now. No one can deny it (and if they do I think the lockdown has already broken them). However, instead of dwelling on that we can try to make use of this time. Maybe you’ve been wanting to look over your CV again or you’ve collected some TED talks you think might be helpful (god knows I’m always finding them on LinkedIn but never at a time where I can comfortably sit down to watch all of it!). Theres an abundance of articles online you mightve wanted to look at and never had the time or the focus needed…well now we’ve got plenty of time and the time to pace yourself through it all! Or perhaps you have a project you always wanted to start on; that photo frame you was always meaning to fill with loose pictures or that film you always wanted to watch. This could be the time to do all of it because time is the one solid guarantee we have right now.
  • If you have a special interest then try to use it still. There’s no ignoring this situation, nor should we be ignoring it anyway…but that doesnt mean we shouldn’t try to escape it for a little bit. I myself am a gamer and right now I use gaming to escape from all the uncertainty and worry right now, and it helps me to face it better because I’m not drowning in all the headlines all the time. Indulge in your interest and even if you dont have a special interest just do something to escape it for a bit: watch a film, read a book, change the radio for a CD when you drive so you dont get the official adverts. Theres nothing wrong in doing this and your relatives and loved ones you live with may appreciate it too (that appreciation may change if you try to play monopoly though. Game responsibly people).
  • Facetime doesn’t have to be your friend. Understandably a lot of people are trying to socialise in ways that are lockdown friendly which is awesome because that’s easily done with technology and helps us still keep to the rules. However that means a lot more people are talking about facetiming with loved ones: which is great if that’s what you like. Personally I don’t like face timing: i become very aware of my face and not accidentally giving myself a double chin by looking down too much and still being able to converse in a non-awkward manner. I also dont particularly like phone calls that much but I’ve improved with them somewhat but either way it doesnt matter because the people who get in touch know me and know my preferences. The same goes for you: don’t feel pressured to socialise in a way that makes you uncomfortable. Odds are people wont even ask because they already know but if they don’t, you can always gently nudge someone into a means of communication that makes you comfortable and where they still get to check on you. The “hey I hope you’re ok” text is always an oldie but a goodie for chatting!
  • Sensory aids arent just for the outside world. If you’re in a house (next to neighbours also stuck in their houses) with quite a few people odds are they’ll go about their business but something they do may grate on you. Maybe you live with a loud chewer or maybe your neighbours are playing music loud in the day. Maybe your loved one tried to help you out with shopping but they got something you cant stand to eat. Use your noise cancelling headphones in the house, avoid the foods you’ve never been able to eat, wear nose plugs or carry around your stress ball (etc). Your aids are to help in any environment, and dont think that just because your in your home that you shouldn’t need to use them. This is the same for anyone still working. Do not feel like you have to give up your sensory aids if they help you! And if you have workplace accommodation in place in some manner they should remain in place or at least negotiated with you if adjustments need to be made to accommodate our situation in society right now.
  • Focus on the day. I have been managing fairly well with all the uncertainty right now largely because I avoid focusing on it. I understand that right now no one has any answers about what will happen but they are going to let us know as soon as possible when answers do come so my brain is willing to accept this for now and I focus day to day, task by task to get through it and this is what everyone needs because for once the neurotypical people in our lives now see what we can feel like in the face of uncertainty but dwelling on it wont help us either. We’ve just got each other, and go to do the best we can.
  • Remember to eat and sleep. I dont add this to be patronising; but I know personally in times of stress I would forget to eat. Whether you’re at home or on the front line it’s so easy for us to get caught up in something and forget vital routines. We still need to get sleep each night and to keep our food and drink intake up. If you have a food routine you can try to stick to that (and if you was partial to a Maccy’s try making a “home made”!) one but try to consider alternatives if you cant (I.e just regular pasta if you cant get spaghetti) or see if your family can help with any shopping you couldnt pick up yourself: so long as shopping limits are respected theres no harm in that.
  • Patience. As reluctant as i am to quote high school musical: We’re all in this together. Odds are maybe you’ll get irritated with the people you live with or vice versa, or you’ll get upset at that one relative you have who keeps going out. We’re all human, and right now we’re all a little scared and upset qnd emotions are running high for everyone but falling out or shouting at one another wont help. We all have to practise a little patience right now and get through this without inducing an all out family feud.

Finally: stay safe. Above all else stay safe. We can literally save lives by just sitting in home and last time I checked there wasnt any hero in both DC and Marvel that could do that, and the work that our healthcare workers are doing right now is more than any superhero can do anyway. So keep calm and carry on staying inside and we will get through this.

We got skills: they multiplyin’

I mentioned before that something people on the spectrum need to do is take control of their labels; change “Autism” from something they may see as negative and make it positive, make it their own. This is something that must be done on both a personal and professional level in order to show everyone- yourself included, that Autism is not the big scary uncontrollable and unreasonable part of you. We are not modern Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hydes, and we do not need to banish our Autism to some tiny little corner of our minds like a dirty little secret.

When you look at Autism traits objectively; a great deal of them can relate to or directly are traits desired in a workforce. I spoke of this briefly but I want to expand on it more.

If you are reading this and you yourself are on the spectrum I would like you to think of your traits, even ones you may have once perceived as a flaw. For the “negative” ones you need to think of them as neutral because you need to look at the trait objectively. Perhaps write them down if it helps or say them aloud whatever will work for you.

Then you should think of a way that trait helped you in some way. For example I can have a keen attention to detail and usually when a person on the spectrum says that people usually tend to defer to the stereotype in noticing details in data; however I once used this trait to actually spot a potential health and safety hazard in a light fitting of my workplace before any of my co-workers had spotted it. Although not a typical example it is a perfect example of me using an autism trait in a workplace to benefit the workplace and my co-workers.

Another example could be the “oldie but goody” autism trait of enjoying repetitive tasks: for some reason liking repetitive tasks and routines can be implied as a negative but it is in fact very good for us especially in a workplace. For example I was given a repetitive task at work and I found that out of all my co-workers I was able to maintain the task at a quick pace and maintain my focus on the task (and not just fall into an auto-pilot of boredom) longer than my Neurotypical colleagues. Another example was when I fitted drives into laptops and repaired their speakers: I did 27 laptops in one day of work experience (the apprentice who works at the shop I did that experience in managed 6 laptops in one day in comparison). A lot more jobs require a repetitive task or are completely made from repetitive tasks than what many people realise.

Once you get into this way of analysing your traits and finding examples you not only find connections you may not have before but you can also then use them. These are the sort of things you can use in your CV’s and job applications and you’ll find many of them: “Attention to detail”, “deep focus”, “unique thought processes and creative ideas” are actually buzz phrases: they are the golden-ticket items for job applications that employers want to see…and your brain LITERALLY has them built in ready to use! And if you can literally spoon feed these words to employers then you are clearly communicating that you have what they want. Which means they’re quicker to see your application and help it stand out. I’ve spoken to many job coaches and they all say the same general thing: employers who are looking through applications could look through hundreds or even thousands and they only spend a few minutes on each so you save them time by directly putting what they want in front of them. We are a community who thrives on clear and direct communication so we need to do that for employers and not make them read between the lines to see if we have the skills they want.

This is not a one-time exercise however: once again we have the joy of repetition because whilst it’s great that you can list skills it’s even better if you can accurately apply them for each application. For example if you decided you wanted to apply for a job in fraud investigations you might list autism skill sets such as: attention to detail, ability to retain facts and remember legislation, excellent report writing skills (etc.). They match that job well and can really help an application. However, if you then applied for something a bit more creative such as a job in advertising then you would want to frame your application about skills that benefit that role such as: unique ways of thinking, creative ideas and flexible approaches to work styles (etc.). Whilst it can sometimes feel overwhelming to keep changing your CV, especially if you feel you’ve already listed your best skills and experiences there, it will help you and your employment odds in the long role to keep returning to it, editing, upgrading and improving but furthermore it helps you see just how much you can do and also get you to start talking about yourself and what you can do in more positive ways which goes a long way when job seeking (after all you can’t really go into an interview and go “well to be honest I’m not that great and I don’t feel like I have much to offer” are you?).

I take the idea that if I can talk about my conditions lightly: casually or even make jokes about it then I can show people that it is ok to do it and that it doesn’t have to be a taboo. Talking about ourselves positively and standing up and telling the world and employers “well actually I have a number of skills…” will have the same effect; we cannot expect to do well if we only talk about ourselves negatively and with shame. Think about it this way: if you have a friend whom is struggling with something do you sit there and go “actually yeah you’re really bad at this and don’t even get me STARTED on how awful you are as a person in general…” or do you tell them to not be so hard on themselves and tell them about all their good traits and abilities? If the answer is that you’re very positive and supportive of your friends…why not offer yourself that same kindness and support?

Like the adorable Thumper says in the Disney classic Bambi: “If you can’t say nothing nice, don’t say nothing at all.” And I think we all need to remember that little rabbits wisdom (or at least the wisdom of his “Momma”) when we have nasty little voices telling us that we aren’t good enough. Because we are. And we deserve to be heard.

(And just to add a little more Disney to your day as Disney is a special interest of mine and it should be in everyone’s day: here’s a classic shot of Thumper to go with the quote. Copyright of Disney of course).

Redefining a label

Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you” -George r.r. Martin, Game of Thrones

The first time I read the book, this quote struck me profoundly. I sat there stunned and read it again and again because it resonated with me. You see I was bullied at school so as I’m sure you can understand; I had many names thrown at me and many mockeries made of my physical disability and their perception of my “weirdness” (quoting them there) that was the foreshadowing to my diagnosis.

I remember that, eventually, they stopped using the word “cripple”. Why? Because I didn’t care. I used the word to describe myself. I made jokes about it: laughed at myself and casually declared myself to be one in jokes aimed at my own expense (amongst a sea of politically correct winces from those who heard me as they weren’t sure whether to laugh or apologise for my condition). They couldnt hurt me with the word because I redefined the word so that it wasnt a word to be hurt by. “Why you hobbling like a cripple?” Would be shouted through laughter followed by a crude mimicry, and I’d look at them and go “Because I am one?” And sometimes the laughter tried to continue but it was faltering and awkward: sounding like an echoing funeral bell as I shot the joke down dead and buried it. Medical labels, however, have a habit of rising in importance again when it comes to employment.

I am Autistic. Sure, that is one of my labels but it isn’t my only label- yet sometimes in job interviews it can feel like that’s the label they look at. Because I’ve seen people change when I say it and since I struggle with tones of voices and facial expressions then you know the changes are painfully obvious! I go into some interviews and I say that word and boom. My degree? Not important. My skills in writing? Cant remember them. My experience in research? Erased from existence. Why? Because now in that persons head they’re imagining some Sheldon Cooper-esque personality to burst from my chest like that scene in Alien and go “you’re in my spot”, and I walk out the interview already knowing that no i do not have that job, and in fact i don’t even have that call they promised me to let me know if I have that job or not. Because they heard Autism, and they saw negativity. The label is negative in their mind (most likely because they dont fully understand), and so my positive skills lost the race to employment.

The only answer to this is not to remove the label (after all, not disclosing also comes with it’s own set of problems sometimes) but to change it. We cant deny our autism anymore than we can deny any other part of us because it there, not the whole of us but a part of us. And we have no reason to deny it! Because it’s not bad: just the perception of it sometimes is. So we need to change that: if we dont like the label then we will change the label. Redefine it and show others a better perception of the label. And that has to start with us because if we as a community look down on that part of us then we cannot help those outside of the community to see it differently.

Think about Autism. Think about its traits, things that people on the spectrum tend to excel in such as critical thinking, attention to detail…theres so many! And you’ll realise that many of the traits are dubbed highly important in employment across a range of sectors. Maybe you have a keen eye for detail: a skill like that could work for security and police work, restoration and fashion work or things like research. Maybe you’re quick to notice patterns: well the field of psychology is full of patterns of behaviour! Or even the public sector for things like fraud investigation and marketing campaigns. Perhaps you like repetitive tasks well then my friend perhaps you could be a lab assistant, librarian or a computer technician? Our skills are only limited by the ideas that our autism only makes is suitable for “some work” because the job stereotypes go with the poor autism label. But the truth is we are suited for so many possibilities and by connecting our traits to the jobs we’re attempting to apply for we can change the label and it will become an asset in the employers eyes, and let’s face it that word: asset is a golden word in many applications. If we can show them that Autism= Asset we can begin to change the label for ourselves, for everyone. Temple Grandin took her special interest and all the honed skills she has, some of which started classed as “Autism Traits” and revolutionised her field of work with them. We are stronger people than we realise and if we reject the negative labels and say to the world “no. I am me and this is my label” we can change everything: for Autism. For us. For the better.

So. Are you ready to change that label?

Books, progress and the cycles of Soil

Having gained some work as a library assistant for a university library since last late October I have learned a few things;

1) Having reshelved many academic books by now I have found that some academics truly have no desire to beat around the Bush with their titles (*cough* “intensive pig breeding volumes 1-4” *cough*).

2) I have an immense amount of respect for the students whom can pick up books called things like “the cycles of soil” (5 volumes of them!), “the science of coffee” (12 volumes of them!) And “egg science” and not feel a hint of sadness at the ensuing read ahead of them as well as the inevitable question of “how can a person write about coffee in 12 books!?”

3) As horror inducing as answering the phone is, I can in fact answer phones and compose myself well despite the odd processing blank and my anxiety internally screaming.

Working at the library has of course taught me other skills: managing the library systems and IT process, learning how to handle tills and a card machine (in the event of helping students pay off fines and/or buying printer credit) etc. As daunting as it had been to start, and whilst I’m sometimes left without much to do (after doing everything and then making myself busy), I can honestly say the work has been enjoyable and it’s something I’ve proudly added to my CV.

That being said I admit I’m still cynical. “Its always easier to find a job once you’ve got a job!” Is what everyone keeps telling me and whilst I ache to believe in that and that after my temporary contract ends I’ll quickly fly off into the magical realm of stable employment…I have my doubts. Largely due to the fact that it feels eerily like a few other occasions in my employment life where I thought I was on the start of something amazing only for it to fall. It brings about the thoughts of “It’s progress, but is it enough? And where do I want the progress to go?” It feels a little like being lost somewhere and managing to procure a compass only to realise I still have no map or idea which way I need to head in the first place. Do I try to get more library work? Do I search for something new? If so, what? And if so, how?

These are thoughts many others on the spectrum undoubtedly have to abd as daunting as my next pieces of advice can be I urge everyone to try it:

Keep going

And try everything

This sounds stupid I know. After all if we’re thinking literally here (which many of us do), how can we keep going if we can’t get anywhere? And how do we try if no one gives us a chance? Well, you keep going by simply not stopping. And we try everything by simply applying. Apply even if you’re not sure you have the exact skills/ experience. Keep going by finding MORE things to apply for find new experiences you may never gave considered existing before you saw the ad for it. My life hasn’t been typical in a lot of aspects so I’ve abandoned the expectation for it to do that and in doing so I keep going by finding more things to apply to and show I’m willing to try by applying for things some people dont expect. After all I’m a graduate of psychology with criminology and I’m working in a library catering to veterinary school, food science, agriculture and all sorts of other topics more people would never associate with my degree!

Be cheeky and apply for everything even if you think its asking for someone else. Worst case scenario is they say no but the best case scenario is that you could make them realise that whilst they may have asked for someone else originally they actually needed you and you could kickstart something amazing. Dont wait to find whatever neat little spot society thinks you need or want. Make your own space with your own voice and tell the world what you can do, because if we only ever applied to things society suggests would suit us, we people on the spectrum would be accountants and IT technicians/ specialists (which for some on the spectrum would suit them nicely but we’d also derive the world of all our other talents and interests).

Finally, here’s Millie the cat who visits the library I work at- she shouts for food and claims space in the library via excessive napping:

Change

Change. Change of work. Change of address. Change of pace. Change of style. Change in circumstances. When I was thinking about writing this I started thinking of all the different ways a change can occur in a personal life and I was able to list so many and say the word “change” so much that the word started to no longer sound real to me (Don’t laugh, we’ve all done that).

Change often gets mentioned alongside Autism in that “people on the spectrum struggle with change”. “Strong need for routine…” “…engage in and prefer repetitive behavioural patterns…” “…distress from sudden change or general changes to their routine…” and many more statements get used verbally or written down with anything Autism related. It is practically considered our own personal kryptonite. I am no exception to this: change can make me nervous (which can be putting it lightly in some cases…) particularly if it is sudden and without prior warning. However: I disagree with this implication that a dislike (or aversion) to change is necessarily bad or even a flaw. It often gets seen as such but I would instead argue it is a naturally human inclination to be wary of change and one that is most certainly not exclusive to Autistic people. I’ve encountered many neurotypical people who will spout about people on the spectrum not liking change and have been on the receiving end of condescending head nods of “understanding” as people go “I get that change is hard for you” (and considering tones of voice isn’t exactly my strong suite you know the tone of voice was strong for even myself to notice it!). But change can affect everyone no matter what your neurological status is: because simply put change can be scary! Because with change comes uncertainty and- surprise, surprise- uncertainty is also scary! What may be the factor that can set people on the spectrum apart is because I would argue we may feel it more deeply. Because despite the Autism myth that we are uncapable of feeling; we feel a lot and many suggest we can sometimes feel emotions even stronger than the average neurotypical…which, when mixed in with the already strong feelings of fear or worry can understandably lead to feelings of being overwhelmed and leave a person struggling to react or cope with those feelings which could then lead to a meltdown…so it’s understandable to wish to avoid all that by simply wishing to avoid change in the first place.

Problem is: change is inevitable (kind of like Thanos just minus the infinity gauntlet snap (just to show my geek references can include marvel and DC)). Life is a constant state of change and growth and adaptation. Luckily for us as a community, though not many realise it, adaptation itself is actually one of our strengths. We as a community are constantly adapting to our environment, circumstances and the people around us: whether in the intricate work of “masking” or just simply managing being Autistic in a Neurotypical world. And I realised this myself recently because I’ve realised, in a time of both great change and uncertainty, that I am constantly adapting and working to manage or manouvere changes or even changing things myself as and when needed: as is the case of every disabled person. Just realising that fact alone helps a lot because it’s like worrying about whether you can do something and then suddenly realising that yes you’re actually doing it and have been doing it. It’s like worrying about learning to drive and then you’re in your lessons driving and doing the thing you was so worried about in the first place. Think back to the last thing you had to face or learn to do that scared you and then you did it: odds are at some point about halfway through it you suddenly stopped and realised you was doing the very thing that had you worried and it wasn’t that scary after all. The same thing applies to change, you just don’t always realise that at first because the uncertainty of things can mask things beforehand.

Another idea that can help with change is controlling what aspects you can and focusing what you know about the change. I am a highly critical and analytical thinker and sometimes with change or uncertainty this can be a hindrance because my mind races to try and think of all the possible outcomes and before you know it I’ve fastracked myself into a meltdown quicker than Amazon can fastrack your parcel. So one of the best ways to help avoid that is to avoid the million outcome thinking. Don’t try to predict the unpredictable. Now I know what your thinking because I’ve thought it myself: “if it was that easy to avoid I’d already be avoiding it” but maybe the only reason you’re not avoiding it is because you aren’t providing your brain with an alternative. Providing yourself with a distraction (going for a walk, engaging in a hobby, cleaning etc) can be helpful and often crucial things to stop a meltdown in it’s tracks. However, there’s another way of focusing on what you know. For example I had fairly recently found myself needing to move. My partner and I were very luckily home one night when our washer caught on fire and we was able to stop said fire before there was serious danger but after that we felt we needed to move: cue the sudden and unexpected change that as a child would’ve sent me into a sobbing screaming mess that would’ve rivaled the Hulk. Instead though; I focused on what I knew, and what wasn’t changing. I knew i had my partner with me and his support and confidence with us moving. I knew we had his and our family to help us and despite a small time if uncertainty to move I quickly found us moving in with my partners family home which was a place familiar to me as was of course, the people. Then on a grander and arguably more philosophical level I knew the age old constant: the next day would be the next day and a new one, and that I would keep going like I always have, and that I would manage in some way as I always have.

That doesn’t mean that to sometimes have a meltdown is wrong. It’s not wrong. In it’s purest form: a meltdown is simply a burst of emotion to get it out of your system. I still cry in worry about things because sometimes I need the outburst to help get myself back under control and regulate emotions. It’s like if a person is a bowl, and emotion is water inside the bowl…sometimes too much water goes in and it overflows. Does that mean we try to keep it forced in a space that doesn’t fit? No you let some water go and then it’s fine. And sure enough after I cry I can wipe my eyes and keep going so ironically sometimes the best way to manage change is to have that outburst (despite what anyone may have you believe). So that can then help you refocus yourself to keep going, keep adapting and changing and be ready to face the change even if it scares you, because the way I’ve seen it for at least half my life now is that change will happen no matter what. So you can walk to meet it or get dragged to it kicking and screaming but either way it will happen. If you feel that analogy doesn’t quit work (which I understand since in my childhood kicking and screaming was the meltdown reaction in my childhood!) Think of it this way. If a lightbulb breaks on you suddenly and sends you suddenly into darkness…do you want to deal with it and change the bulb, or sit in the dark and struggle to see anything?

Navigating Neurotypical interviews with Autism

I’ve had a few people suggest I attempt coaching or mentoring and use this blog to help people on the spectrum to get into jobs. Now don’t get me wrong that would be awesome to do and I’d love to help people get into employment!

Except I kinda can’t do that.

Don’t get me wrong I know a lot of advice on how to get into work: I’m signed up to all the job seeking sites, I’ve watched the TED talks, read the articles and advice in interviews from the articles that usually have headlines like “this CEO’s advice on improving employability” and so on and so forth. I even have my own advice ideas from that. But that’s all they are: ideas. That’s because I’m still struggling to get a job myself. So in my eyes how can I try to give you advice yet? It’d be like my trying to give you tips on how to skydive after only reading about the subject: I might mean well but it’s no use when you’re out there trying effectively use your parachute (or in the actual case, trying to get work).

So then I thought ‘well what can I offer?’ I’ve still had experiences after all. Which got me thinking, that rather than acting like I’ll get you a job with some “5 simple steps!” Promises: I can help you control what you can in interviews- minimise the stress of navigating them and to avoid feeling quite so frantic from them.

  • Scout it out (Google maps and street view are your friends). So you’ve managed to be offered an interview. Well done! But maybe, like me, you get worried or stressed travelling to unknown locations or areas. Suddenly a potential opportunity becomes terrifying again. Try typing the address into Google maps (OR, if the organisation hasn’t notified you of their company address Google them and take that address). Once you have that then if also like me your terrible with street names (and that street name kinda looks familiar like you might’ve been there before but you’re not certain…), then simply go into street view and take a virtual walk around the area! Do this multiple times leading up to the interview in order to keep it fresh in your mind and help you feel certain where you need to be. That way, you have one less thing to be nervous about on the day.
  • Embrace the waiting area. A bit of a follow up from the previous point; maybe you know the route but you’re unsure how long it will take you to make the commute (or maybe you don’t yet know the route but your confident you’ll find it quickly). Dont be afraid to turn up early! Even if it’s quite a bit early it’s better to be early to an interview than late and it helps start the good impression because all of a sudden you’re “very punctual”. Not only that but it gives you time to maybe stop if there’s a shop nearby and you can get a drink if needed or if you need a quick toilet break (etc) before your interview. Furthermore being in the waiting area can be a time to breathe. To just take a moment to calm down and try to relax a little so that you can be your best.
  • Smart clothes should be functional otherwise they aren’t smart. For me personally, because of my autism and sensory sensitivity with touch: I can be really bothered with clothes. If they have the wrong texture or are too restricting it may mean I just will not buy them or they’ll becomes really distracting and even stressful for me. I kid you not: I once wore a skirt for an interview that restricted my walk and in the end I ripped the skirt and felt better for the leg space even though it felt like I had just hulked out my skirt (or should I say she-hulked? You get the idea). So for interviews check your clothes (either before you buy them or if it’s just been a while since you wore it) for comfort: are they comfortable for moving around in? Is there an itchy label that might bug you? Is the zip broken and keep falling down? (Don’t worry we’ve all been there). Find this out before to give yourself time to resolve it or pick an alternate outfit. That way you can be confident in what you’ll wear and won’t have any distraction.
  • They want to interview you, not a personality guide. I see a lot of interview tips and work tips start throwing personality catchphrases around. “Be confident!”, “Be enthusiastic!”, “Show your drive!” (Whatever that means…), “Be charismatic!” and first off: they can be as helpful as a “mind your head” comment after you’ve already hit your head. I’ve had a few personality suggestions and read plenty more in regards to getting jobs and my response is usually one of sarcasm- “be more charismatic why thank you! Now my struggle from my autism with social situations, general anxiety and awkwardness are all cured!”. They simply aren’t helpful (especially if like me you have traits influenced by conditions). Secondly they’re implying you need to be or do more than what you’re currently like. Maybe you aren’t super charismatic (shout out to my introverts and anyone who doesn’t consider themselves charismatic!)…why should that be seen as a flaw or something that could be holding you back? It’s not been an issue before so it won’t be now. That isn’t to say you don’t want to try hard and maybe be a bit more formal in an interview setting but why try to force a whole new persona that you only think they may want in an applicant? If they offered you an interview it’s you they’ve offered it to not some buzzfeed article carbon copy of yourself. Plus you will find it far more exhausting in the interview pretending about yourself especially if, like me, you have to regularly mask things (many autistic people especially women mention masks to hide social struggles. I have no intention of building any more masks other than that one!).
  • Sometimes a little comfort soothes a lit of anxiety. I’m not superstitious of this, I don’t think it gives me good luck or anything like that…but I confess that for every interview and formal event I attend I wear a necklace with a picture of my Nana on it. It’s usually tucked into my clothes out of sight anyway but it provides a small measure of comfort. Maybe you have some small trinket that can be discreetly tucked away and/ or hidden (maybe you like to swear geeky socks under your smart shoes or have your own jewellery or a certain keychain that can be hidden in your pocket). There’s no shame in maybe having something in your interview routine that can act as a constant and sometimes give you a focus point (when I start to panic I think of the necklace and maybe hold it for a bit).
  • Don’t hunt for what-ifs. Hunt for what is. Interviewers can take different approaches from different organisations and even the people running them. So trying to figure out what they might ask and when is probably going to be as easy to do as getting over the ending to Game of Thrones. In other words: next to impossible. So rather than focusing on all the things that could happen and possibly causing panic, maybe try looking up the organisation if you don’t already know much. Look at their vision statements (if they show any online), who they are, what they do, how they do it, who they help (etc). That way you can start to understand the organisation more and see how you feel about it as well as maybe even find some questions you want to ask them in the interview. Plus you may then get the chance to show that knowledge in the interview and impress them (showing that you’ve done research and are keen to learn by asking and researching them), as well as get more in depth knowledge from your questions.
  • The early bird gets the good night sleep. Sounds silly to mention but ensuring you get a good night sleep can help a lot with facing interviews. Now by this I’m not meaning or expecting a full nights undisturbed sleep because I can understand nerves can make it hard to get to sleep but if you at least try to go to bed early you give yourself a longer time to eventually fall to sleep (and hopefully stay asleep!). Consider trying things to relax first such as a bath or getting changed into comfy PJ’s before bed as research can show routines with things such as those can aid in sleep (finally putting my knowledge on sleep psychology to use!).
  • Don’t be afraid to pause. Thanks to my autism: my processing speeds get a little bit strange sometimes. Either my mouth speaks too fast for my brain to catch up, or my brain goes too fast for my mouth so it jumbles things together or it’s not even sure what to try to say. The result? Blankness. Nothing. Nada. “Um…sorry I can’t think of my words now” is then what usually comes out of my mouth after a pause or a fumbled sentence. But that’s ok. It embarrasses me at first but I’ve learnt that it’s ok and people accept it. It’s ok to pause and collect your thoughts in an interview (if anything they want that because it’s proof that your thinking over responses and ideas). Just like it’s ok to be nervous and maybe stammer then taking a breath. They don’t expect Shakespeare to spill forth from thine lips!

So there are some if my best tips and explanations (with a few terrible jokes thrown in for good measure). Perhaps they aren’t ones that suit your approach but then I hope they serve as ways to think about how you might want to change your approach (or change these tips to suit you!). Remember that these are just to try and help control what you can because unlike what some articles say you can’t control the whole process as scary as that may be so simply focus on what you can control to ensure it’s the best it can be.

My time at Pop Press

Despite it only being 6 weeks, I felt very optimistic about how my time as an intern for Pop Press would be. I had bosses whom had some experience with Autism and understood it’s variety, meaning they had an understanding that my situation is unique as opposed to having the same traits as everyone else on the spectrum. Not only that but they was willing to allow me to work in a way that wouldn’t force conflicts with those traits! I was allowed to work from home (which proved especially helpful when the weather turned and began to affect my other condition too). I controlled my own hours so long as I met the 35hours a week rule in my internship contract, and whilst Steve and Ming contributed ideas and a rough guideline of how they wanted the project to go; they gave me control of it all. This can be rare especially with research, to have so much control and it was refreshing after months of being at the mercy of job applications that removed all my control the moment I hit send. So on my first day I sat down at my computer, ready and eager to write.

Then I promptly forgot any idea on how to even write a research report.

I stared blankly at the opened word document on my computer screen with my fingers poised over the keys, waiting for the usual flurry of typing I would usually do. Nothing. Nada. Total blank.

Absent-mindedly, I started stimming. This is a behaviour of mine I have only truly recently recognised I do because I’m usually unaware of the motions which only usually happen when I’m struggling to think of a word or sentence (or in this case, how to just write). I started clicking my fingers on my left hand as I stared at my screen trying to think. That turned to tapping my fingertips together. Still nothing. Then I went to fetch a pen to shake and a notepad to write notes on hoping the old fashioned way of writing may prompt something.

Remembering the university style of report writing: I considered the usual rule with introduction. Setting the scene. Explain the topic and it’s current state. So, I started with the statistics of the prevalence of Autism, the statistics of employment of people on the spectrum…you get the idea.

I hated it. I was dragging my way through the introduction and part of the first paragraph and just stopped. Writing the report so far had been like trying to wade through tar on a hot day (now I understood how the dinosaurs who got stuck in tar felt), and I knew I’d despise and struggle the next few weeks if I kept trying to force it. Then I realised it wasn’t because I found the subject dull, but what I was writing. That is to say, that whilst University may have approved what I wrote, I didn’t. It came across as the greatest tragedy of the Spectrum: making us all sound like sob stories that neurotypical would “aww” at and go “oh bless them! The poor things!” And that wasn’t me. Just like it wasn’t anyone I’ve ever met or encountered who shared a place on the spectrum like I did. I didn’t want to show us by the statistics and the sadness I wanted to show our amazingness! Our unrecognised skills and traits! Because that’s what we are: a community of amazing people with knowledge and skills and talents not seen or heard and I wouldn’t be able to make us be recognised if I stool to the same dull statistical woes approach.

So I scrapped it. Opened a new word document and started again. The difference was both obvious and instantaneous: my writing flowed in a frenzy, my brain processing ideas and sentences faster then my fingers could type so it was flooded with typos because I didn’t care because I was writing and making progress which was something I hadn’t felt like I was doing in so long.

I found famous icons past and present across so many industries, professions and talents. I fought through the research, limited though it were, finding what I needed and when I couldn’t I found ways to argue points that haven’t been discussed. The research sometimes caused me anxiety if I particularly struggled to find something to back up a point I was making; but when I mentioned it to Ming she pointed out it didn’t need to have a lot of research to make its points because she already knew what the current research was like. It drove home the message that I had already told myself when I scrapped my first attempt. This work was mine. Not my universities, not some stuffy neurotypical researchers whom only knew of Autism from an observers point of view. This was mine to write and to take in whatever direction I wanted, and in whichever way I wanted. So I was going to do that my way.

Now when the time came to show Ming and Steve my work after the first week I was still nervous to show them. Due to my anxiety I can often convince myself that people won’t like the work I have done, or that I had done it wrong somehow or misinterpreted instructions (I could go on with more fears but I’m sure you get the idea). Then I remembered a trait I had researched for the article, arguing many people on the spectrum can have this trait. Grit. Grit is essentially a willingness to fail and still keep going and learn from failures even in front of audiences in the pursuit of goals. Some people have argued I’ve shown this before, in times where I’ve kept going in my life in the face of challenges (both physical and emotional), and I knew i needed to show it in that moment. To overcome my anxiety to show my work and be willing to face whatever my bosses said and work with it instead of letting my anxiety run wild with it.

I quickly sent an email with all my work, explained what I had been doing and the first scrapped report and sent it before I could give myself time to overthink. In the meantime I continued working.

When I saw I had a reply I froze and then forced myself to open it. The relief was immediate when I saw the positive feedback and that they liked the direction I was taking the report. They liked it and my approach so I was doing something right and furthermore it was my ideas they liked not the university approved way that had been drilled into me. I kept going, looking on Steve and Ming’s ideas for loose guidance and help. The report steamrolled and though each time I felt nerves at showing them my work, they continued to like it and my confidence grew.

In the meantime, I also began working on guidelines for ways to support Autistic people in workplaces (usually whilst suffering a writers block on the report). I decided I wanted them to be more informal and almost like a conversation (in the hope it could inspire actual conversations). So then, from that I decided to think: “what would I, as an autistic person, want to say to a boss or manager if I could?” And once again ideas came forward. Small and simple ideas, some simply just about attitudes towards Autism! Because supporting a person on the spectrum isn’t just about them. It’s about how they’re seen, treated, thought about. It’s about how Autism is regarded just as much as how the person with it is affected. Steve and Ming liked these guidelines too, offering ideas to push me further as I had been in a way trying to reign myself in trying to consider being concise and simple. Yet I realised I didn’t have to be. This wasn’t about being timid and worrying about being called unreasonable. This,to me, became me standing tall and shouting for a community being shushed. This was a battle cry and I was ready to scream until my throat hurt. My report almost took on a marketing tone and in first few weeks it had worried me that it sounded like I was marketing people on the spectrum but then I realised in a way that’s what I needed to do. I need to essentially shout “this community is amazing and here’s why. Now why wouldn’t you want to hire us!?”

My bravery wilted, however, when Steve and Ming said we should take my work to the Nottingham Trent University Thinklusive event. I just knew I’d be in a room of neurotypical people from different organisations, and I’d be trying to fumble my way through the social niceties like the metaphorical bamboo on ice. I worried not only if I would manage, but if they would find my work impressive enough to be willing to listen to me, when I know previous attempts at being heard had been unsuccessful (my own university lecturers often demonstrated assumptions that no autistic people would be in there classes so how could I expect businesses and organisations too?)

But the event was the total opposite to previous experiences. It was filled with people that wanted to make changes and wanted to listen to everyone, and furthermore wanted to listen to and read my work. They wanted to hear my story as a woman on the spectrum fresh with a degree and nowhere to put it to use until Pop Press gave me the chance. I was in awe of the acceptance because although many treat it as a given right, it wasn’t often the case and yet it was refreshing to not face the change in faces and body language once the words “Autism” and “disabled” were mentioned (and let’s face it I am autistic so you know that if I see a change in faces and body language then it’s very obvious!)

I realised after the event how quickly my time at Pop Press had flown by in productivity, nerves and excitement. I worry foe my future I admit but it was Pop Press and a few people at the event whom pushed me to create this blog and said I should share my story and make myself heard. I have more to add to a small CV, new confidence in my skills and a hope for my future that is stronger now than it was before. A lady at the event shared with me a nephew of hers had been diagnosed with Autism, leaving his mother worrying for his future and she then told me she would tell her sister about me to reassure her and honestly…it was incredible to think that somehow I, an awkward women in a quirky blouse patterned with dogs in jumpers (cuter than described I promise) could inspire and encourage hope for others, as it’s always been a goal of mine to help others somehow. So to know I have already done so just by writing the report and guidelines for Pop Press has made the experience an even greater success.

I wish to thank Steve and Ming for my first pleasant work experience and for letting me have that chance to stand up and be heard and do so in my own way (which may have sometimes been scattered and rambling!) , discussing something very close to my heart. Thank you.

16%

Whilst I was at University, I encountered the oh-so-delightful statistic that only 16% of Autistic adults find themselves in stable full-time work.

That was terrifying.

There I was, second year of University being told constantly by so many of my lecturers that I was going to be so employable once I had my degree (and the old phrase “so many doors will open for you!” Got thrown around a lot too). Yet I had a statistic staring me right in the face and I was losing the staring contest (granted: as an Aspie; eye contact isn’t exactly my forté in the first place but you get my point!).

Only 16% what if I’m not in that 16%? This is literally telling me I likely won’t get work! In a panic, I ran to my mentor, my guide in life, my social guru and neurotypical translator…my mum. Spouting the statistics and my worries in a frantic babble of words empowered by a hyper processing brain and mouth: I looked to her for some kind of answer. “Paige you have to remember, the 16% will be people who will have high functioning Autism and Asperger’s, like you.” Her reassuring tone was present (at least I think it was…tones of voices is also not my forté), but I wasn’t convinced. Surely there was more people than 16% considered high functioning? And besides that surely lots more people on the spectrum must have skills, qualifications and qualities that could make them ideal employees somewhere? No matter the supposed functioning level? Then I thought to myself so what if it’s a low statistic. My Ehlers-Danlos made it so that it was a low statistical chance for me to ever walk unaided and now I do. It was a low statistical chance I would go to university and now I do. It was a low statistical chance that i qould be Autistic and have Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and I do. I laugh in the face of low statistical chances!

Determined to make it another statistics to literally defy the odds of, I pushed it aside, pulled my University textbooks back towards me and set myself back to work. Year 2 went by, as did year 3 (in a haze of anxiety, Pepsi Max and countless study playlists of music and dealing with being socially demanded upon by people I wrongly thought were friends…a story for another time maybe). I sensibly walked up to retrieve my degree in sandals and watched my true friends nervously make their own walk in precarious high heels. My parents smiled, photos were taken and the air was vibrating with excitement for what comes next!

For me…work wise, the answer was not a lot. Initially I took a break as I had faced burn-out: my focus was gone and I was exhausted mentally from the strain of work and everything else. After about 3 months or so I began to look for work and had a partner by my side supporting me in this though it was hard especially as he wished for me to move in with him and I wished to have a stable job first in order to equally contribute to that.

I’ve lost count of my applications. My partner had helped me adjust my CV and even spent whole evenings with me hunting down job ads I could apply for. They all ended the same.

Ignored. Rejected. Apparantly “ghosting” isn’t just a new phenomena in dating but also in job seeking, and I was facing it more times than I cared to count. Sometimes receiving a rejection was nice just to hear back from someone and know where I stood! Once or twice I got to an interview only to still be ignored.

I don’t need to be neurotypical to know that’s just rude.

Then on the cycle went. Ignored. Ignored. Ignored. Rejected. Ignored. On and on. Breakdown after pep talk after breakdown. Then I got another beacon of hope when I applied for a teaching agency and they called me. I got an interview and then: I got the job! Result! I moved in with my partner at the reassurance of a stable workload and an eagerness to stop being held back.

Then when the enrolment process started going awry I started to worry. The process took months delayed by unreasonable document rejections and last minute requests (I got told “this is the last thing we need from you and then we can get you some work!” About 5 or 6 times). Finally I get to actually work only for more mess ups and stress and in the end despite technically working for them for about 3 months or so (should have been 5 but again the enrolment process took so long), I only actually had work for 3 of those days. Only one of which was paid. I didn’t even make enough money to make up for the amount I paid for my DBS check, it’s update list, or even my fuel costs. Enough was enough and I quit.

Months went by with more application failures, and less hope. I swayed between desperately thinking “I’ll find something tomorrow” and just wanting to cry. Or actually crying. I spent days hunched over my partners computer desk, multiple web pages opened for different job seeking sites and my emails flooding with their emails. I had two different job coaches to ask for help and I was mentally bracing myself to visit people for when the inevitable question of “have you found a job Yet?”. That changed a little when I started helping my mum by looking after my little brother whom was put on restricted timetable by a school that had promised they would be able to manage and cater support to him and his additional needs (my brother is also autistic), and then couldn’t. Then I simply looked for jobs through a laptop in between anything he needed from me.

Then one day I received a university job email. They was running a paid internship scheme for 6 weeks. With the memory of being rejected for 5 other job roles the university in the space of 2 minutes; I was skeptical it would amount to anything but still hopeful enough to try. Trying my best to use my job coaches suggestions and agonising over the application I sent it off, not even knowing what I truly applied for as it was the Universities choice whom I might work with. If I would work with any of them, that is. I got a call I wasn’t expecting, and a cheery voice answered saying they were part of the employability team in charge of the internship scheme. I had been matched with a company. In a daze I fought to keep answering in my polite phone voice, listening about the small company called Pop Press that was in Nottingham that was interested in working with me and about what they did and that they were really eager to try to help and work with with people on the spectrum (at which point the lady brought up how I had mentioned in my application looking after my little brother whom was on the spectrum). I felt a flash of panic wondering whether the people at Pop Press knew I was autistic and if it would bother them and then thought surely not if they want to help people on the spectrum? They’ll just have to help people on the spectrum with a person the spectrum. I agreed to take the job. I was nervous if I could actually do it though, after all I hadn’t had any kind of work in so long would I actually be able to do the job? But that was put to rest by friends,family, my partner and Steve and Ming; my bosses.

We met for the first time in a small cafe and I was instantly reassured. They already knew I was on the spectrum and in fact it was on of the reasons they wanted to work with me and was willing to support me. They checked to see if the environment was ok for me and not causing any kind of sensory overload? They asked how else my Autism affected me, the asked about me and wanted to know more about me and what I’ve done, what I enjoy, what I knew of their company…they saw me. Autism and all, and they wanted everything I had to offer. In turn they told me about their son, a fellow Aspie, and how he helped them see into a world they otherwise may not have, and the struggles we face, especially with trying to get a job and especially in the creative industries which they themselves work in. Pop Press specialises in letter printing, offering unique pieces and originally designed items; but Steve and Ming had bigger plans too not just for their shop but also the creative industry.

That’s where I came in.

They wanted to see why people on the spectrum get overlooked by the creative industries despite so many of us being creatively inclined. They wanted to see why our positive traits are so often overlooked and how we could get people to see that Autistic people shouldn’t be overlooked; but rather embraced, supported and encouraged in creative industries as well as others. So they asked me to produce a report on the problem along with possible solutions and resources that could help people as well as guidelines for how to help support Autistic people in the workplace.

At once, the gears in my head began turning, my brain mindmapping potential research routes, articles I had already read and/ or seen recently in social media, people to look at as examples…after so long of nothingness, I had an idea to latch onto and run with, one very close to home for me too. The more we spoke, the more ideas I got and the urge to start immediately became stronger and stronger.

I was tired of trying to fit in the 16%: tired of playing that game. So I was going to change the rules. I was going to work with Steve and Ming to change the statistic for everyone…and I had 6 weeks to do it.