Friday, 29 July 2016

Computer Games and Life - Revisited

A while back, I wrote a post about how the computer game Solitaire is a lot like my life. More recently, I’ve been playing a lot of FreeCell, and you know what? I’ve realised it’s pretty much the same.

Sometimes, for instance, I seem to be doing okay, but then I suddenly reach a dead-end, there’s nowhere to go, nothing more I can do. Or I have this troubling feeling that I’ve gone wrong somewhere, only I’m not sure where…  So I go through it all again, move by move, but I’m rarely able to figure out where I went wrong. I’m always left with this feeling like there is One Key Thing that I’ve somehow missed.

If I can’t be bothered with that, I restart the game, or abandon it and start a new one. And yes, that means the ‘this counts as a loss in your statistics… (you loser!)’ message popping up. Again, and again, and again. Like I need reminding

Repeated failures usually only mean that I become reckless, and lose all the faster, and more decisively. Sometimes, I feel like I can’t win at all. Sometimes, I even become cynical, and feel like the games are rigged, or that they’re somehow getting harder and harder.

Part of my problem, I’ve realised, is that I tend to become too obsessed with ‘tidying up this part here’, or ‘what’s happening in this corner’, and neglecting the bigger picture. And I don’t learn from my mistakes either, because every game feels different. It’s like walking into different rooms, with different people, indulging in different antics and power plays, and you have to figure it all out anew.

So often, I wish I could just once go straight through a game, without hesitation, backtracking, second-guessing, and blind trial-and-error. And when I do finally win through, the feeling is “Duh, but of course, it’s done that way, how else could it be done?!!” And feeling like Everybody Else would know this, and wonder why I couldn’t see it.

Small wonder then, that I’ve always seen myself as stupid.

In fact I never really ‘get it’, and I never will, I see that now. And I’ve realised that with this game too, there are ones I shouldn’t even start. Trouble is, it’s hard to spot them. A game can seem welcoming, promising, but then a while into it, suddenly, you’re in the swamp up to your neck, and with no idea how you got there or how to get out of it, other than just walking away.  

And what does it mean, to walk away? Do you forswear all games, or just start an entirely new type, hoping that this time it will work out okay? Not likely, when you’re just as ignorant, just as hopeless outclassed, as you were the first time you played.

Of course, technically I could stop playing games altogether, and find something else to do. But life itself is a series of games, and you have to play one or another, in the end.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Autistics Who Don't Fit The Stereotypes

We autistics are usually all too well aware of how the public image of autism is grossly inaccurate. The stereotypical autistic is usually seen as either –

a)     The non-verbal or barely verbal young boy, presumed to be intellectually disabled, non-toilet-trained, faecal smearing, constantly stimming, refusing to be touched or cuddled, with frequent meltdowns, and running away any chance he gets;
b)     The Asperger's-type geeky adolescent male, neck-deep in computers, who can code better than he can talk, with minimal social skills, emotionally cold, uninterested in making friends, and probably with questionable personal hygiene.

The professionals, meanwhile, describe us as being ‘deficient’ in things like theory of mind or empathy, and tell us we can’t imagine what others are feeling, or understand ourselves properly for that matter, or grasp abstract concepts, philosophical ideas, and so on.

We know that these stereotypes are not true, but even amongst ourselves, we can fall into the mistake of over-generalising. We’re much preoccupied with building community right now, searching amongst ourselves for similarities. We’re doing a lot of “Do you feel this, experience this?” or “Does anyone know what I mean by…?”; type stuff in our groups. We share, we support, we revel in our alikeness, after so many years of being always the ‘different one’, the outcast, outsider, weirdo, or reject.

And this is an excellent and much-needed thing. However, there is one drawback to it. And that is in our eagerness to find and share our similarities, we may gloss over our very real differences. Yes, we all have our autism in common, that ‘different brain’, but that can manifest in so many different ways.

Because for every behaviour or response or trait that even we think of as being ‘typically’ autistic, we can find someone on the spectrum who doesn’t have it, or do it.

Some of us, of course, are female, or non-white (a group waaay under-diagnosed), or not even in Western countries. We come from both genders and the inter-gender, all races and nationalities and religions and sexualities, all classes and sub-sections of humanity, and all ages too (you don’t stop being autistic the day you turn eighteen!).

But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. There are autistics, for instance, who are fine with eye contact, extroverted autistics who enjoy other people’s company, and who can do, and sometimes prefer, small talk, and autistics who find routines tiring rather than helpful, or who are comfortable with change and variety, or even crave it, hating being ‘stuck in a rut’.

There are autistics who have never had a meltdown, who are hypo-sensitive to sensory input, especially pain, whose stims are non-existent or kept very quiet and private or non-obvious, who have no particular ‘special interests’, or who are hopeless with maths and/or technology, preferring the social sciences or the arts or just about anything but computers.

There are whimsical autistics, and those who are totally serious. Many of us have a good sense of humour, although there are a few who must have been behind the door when they were handed out. There are autistics who can handle and even do sarcasm and metaphor, and those who can understand and use abstract or figurative language and/or philosophical concepts just fine.

And while many autistics struggle with friendships and/or relationships, choose not to try for them, or truly don’t want them, many others are able to build long-lasting connections with others, even marrying and/or having children. There are also many autistics who have no problem with physical or verbal affection, including to their children, though they vary a lot as to who with, and how and when, they express it to adults.

There are even autistics who can read facial expressions, though usually after many years of deliberately studying other people, while others are still on the beginnings of this process, or find themselves incapable of even beginning it. Some of us have learnt social skills to the point where we’re actually quite socially savvy, and some are just naturally ‘social beings’, and can work well in team or group situations, including workplaces.

There are also autistics who don’t have autism as their main identity, not because they view it negatively or reject it, but because other factors dominate their lives far more. These factors can include mental health problems, physical health problems, a racial, ethnic, cultural or religious identity, or indeed just about anything that they feel has shaped their lives far more than autism has.

There are even autistics who do (seem to) fit the popular stereotypes, though I personally feel that this is more superficial than real – there’s probably a good intelligence behind at least some of those non-verbal/barely verbal fronts, for instance, if the examples of autistics like Amy Sequenzia, Carly Fleischmann, Ido Kedar or Tito Mukhopadhyay are anything to go by.

This list could probably be even longer, but you get the picture. My point here, is that every time we say “autistics have/do…”, rather than “many/some autistics have/do…” we risk isolating those who differ from our type of autism, leaving them feeling left out and more alone than ever. Sometimes an autistic is rejected or attacked by others as ‘not properly autistic’, on precisely these grounds. And yes, that can and has happened, and it’s often very distressing to the individual concerned.

We need to be conscious that although we all have the different neurology that is the core of our autism, everyone expresses that neurology differently, and will have many other defining characteristics as well. We need to remember that our autism is only our autism, not everyone else’s.

And we all have the right to be whatever type of autistic we are, even if that doesn’t fit the majority view of ‘what autism is’, even in our own communities.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

A Restless Spirit

This is going to be a more personal blog post than I usually do, and I’m uncertain how many others on the spectrum, if anyone, would identify with some of this.

Anyway, what’s been happening for me lately is the return of a perennial problem – a kind of deep-down restlessness. It’s afflicted me many times in the past, from childhood on, but I’ve never figured what it is I really want. I’ve tried assuaging it with this and that, speculated on what it might be from – winter blues, needing to be more creative, meditate more and better, go for a trip somewhere? - but with never any real answers.

I do know, or at least think, that it arises out of a kind of split or duality in my nature, two forces pulling me in totally different directions – and that have also been there my whole life.

On the one hand, is the side of me that likes order, tidiness, regularity, routine, everything fixed in its place, my life lined up like centimetres on a ruler. This side of me, as you might guess, is intrinsically linked to my autism. It’s the force that sees me religiously keep to my daily rituals, tidy my drawers so neatly that my mother once joked “are you sure you’re my daughter?”, and clean so hard it’s a wonder I don’t rub the pattern off things.

It’s also the part that gets flustered if things don’t go according to plan, or if something is out of place, the part that gets upset, or even panicky and close to meltdown, if there are serious disruptions to my routines and order. In recent decades, it’s the force that has driven me towards a semi-reclusive lifestyle, shying away from the world and curling in on my order like a wounded creature crawling into shelter. And in a sense, I was, and am. The world is messy, chaotic and unpredictable, and not nice to autistics. I’ve been damaged, as many autistics have been.

I’d be willing to bet many autistics, by this point, are nodding their heads and going “uh-huh, yep, I so know what you mean!”

But there’s another side to me.

It’s the side that craves stimulation, excitement, variety and yes, even change. That, every now and again, longs to break out of the box I’ve created for myself, this half-life that isn’t really a life at all, grab a few essentials, jump in my car and drive somewhere I’ve never been before, visit towns or even countries I’ve never been to, see sights I’ve always longed to see (Eiffel Tower, anyone? Stonehenge? No?), and do things the orderly side of me would look at in horror.

It’s the side of me that even remotely contemplates a relationship, even if it’s at some distant time in the future – something my other side shies away from like a nervous horse. It’s certainly the side of me that wants to see more of my aspie friends, be more ‘sociable’, have more of a life, in short.

It’s also the force that compels me to write, the side of me that, more and more, wants to grab the world by the throat, yell “listen to me!”, and tell them what it’s really like, being autistic. That wants to shout from the rooftops the truth of my life, and that of others on the spectrum. That wants to go back out into the world as a strong, independent and authentic aspie, and tell the world to Deal With It. Whereas my other side would prefer to stay cowering in my little cocoon of safety, hoping no-one will even notice I’m here.

The tension between these two forces within me is powerful. My orderly side would be quite happy living a near-monastic existence on some remote hilltop or plateau. My excitement-seeking side, however, would prefer the beating heart of a city. Tugged this way and that, by this need and that, I lurch from isolation to interaction and back again. I go away for a few days, enjoy myself, but then gratefully flee back home into my orderly little shelter. (Or should I say shell?) I go to an event, and then come home and crawl into bed for a couple of days. And so on.

At different times in my life, one side or the other has ruled. In my younger years, for example, my more adventurous side pushed me into social movements like feminism and anti-racism, fighting for the principles I believed in. I waved placards, chanted slogans, marched and demonstrated to stop the Springbok tour, defeat sexism, deny nuclear ships a welcome on our shores, return Maori land, and generally demand a better, fairer world. I was an ‘angry young woman’.

But then I started getting sick, and disillusioned, and heartbroken. So the ‘order’ side of me began to assert itself in a slow withdrawal from the world. And since exiting a very toxic relationship nearly twenty years ago, it’s been winning hands down. But now I feel like I’m stagnating… so the other side of me is breaking into flower again.

Overall, it’s definitely time for a weather change in my life. My autism and my CFS do pose limitations, it’s true, as does my sheer lack of funds. (Guess Stonehenge will have to wait a while.) But I do want, somehow, to have more of a life, live more authentically and more vibrantly. Somehow, I have to find a way to do this.

Watch this space.