What Autism Feels Like (At Least For me)

Like you’re an alien.

Like the lights are too bright.

Like the sirens are too loud.

Like the shirt is too scratchy.

Like you’re in a play where everyone else has the script but you don’t.

Like people are telling you things with their eyes, but you can’t quite figure out what it is.

Like people imposing limitations on what you can do, and you having to fight for these limitations to be lifted.

Like you’re a failure for not having a superpower, being a savant, a maths whizz.

Like being fabulously obsessed, with music, art, film, whatever.

Like forgetting faces but remembering names.

Like  depression.

Like you’re alone.

10 Things About Job Hunting with Asperger’s and Tourette’s

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  1. It’s not always necessary to suppress your tics. If you’re effing, blinding, jerking and grimacing your way through an interview, it certainly makes you memorable. And if the employer has a problem with your tics, then you probably don’t want to be employed by them anyway. They’re not good employers.
  2. Sometimes it’s necessary to suppress your tics, because people are not always kind. One potential employer told me that she didn’t think I could be hired on the basis of my Tourette’s. She said it would impinge on the duty of care they had to the customer. This person was wrong, and her implication was discriminatory.
  3. People are curious about Tourette’s and will ask you questions about your condition during the interview. The usual ones: What’s the worst thing you’ve ever said? When did you get it? Do you ever say a curse and then pretend it was your Tourette’s? These questions are tiresome.
  4. Interviewers expect you to lie. To the classic question: what’s your weakness? I used to honestly respond stress, noisy environments, overwhelming workloads. Not a great response when every employer expects you to handle your stress, work flow and to not give a damn about the constant noise in the background.
  5. One-word answers are not acceptable even when one-word answers answer the actual question. I got a random “What do you think of Netflix?” once. To which I responded: “Good.” I didn’t get the job.
  6. People are more understanding than you think. I was terrified of coming out as autistic at my last job. Refreshingly, they didn’t give a shit.
  7. People are less understanding than you think. Whilst bartending between contracts, my colleague howled with laughter when I told her I was cursing because of my Tourette’s. “But how can you be a bartender with Tourette’s?” she asked. This was a stupid question. You can of course me anything with Tourette’s. Sure, I broke a few glasses and threw a few chairs, but I knew how to make a damn good margarita.
  8. Talk lots. My usual way of handling awkward situations is to provide brief responses, explain nothing and then move on with my life as quickly as possible. They don’t like this in interviews. They like words to come out of your mouth.
  9. Don’t talk too much. Waffling and rambling can be a side effect of nerves but quash that shit.
  10. A colleague once told me I handled my Tourette’s with “a chuckle and a shrug”. There’s not much you can do about having Tourette’s. It’s chronic and incurable. So, you might as well handle the ups and downs, the offers and the rejections, with a chuckle and a shrug.

Why do you want a label?

Sometimes, people dismiss psychiatric and neurological diagnoses as “labels”. This is curious. Conditions pertaining to parts of the body are rarely, if ever, dismissed as such. Since when are stomach cancer, diabetes or high blood pressure ever called labels?

But labels, or, to use the proper term, diagnoses, can be enormously helpful.

Firstly, labels are useful for treatment. If you have Borderline Personality Disorder, but don’t have the official diagnosis, then it’s unlikely you’d be referred for Dialectical Behavioural Therapy, and unlikely that you’d get your condition under control. The case is the same for OCD and Exposure and Response Prevention Therapy, depression and cognitive behavioural therapy, and just about every other psychiatric and neurological condition out there. When diagnosed with OCD, therapists taught me more about the condition, and after a while, I knew which thoughts were part of my illness and which thoughts were part of me. I was given the right medication, and with it, managed to get the incessant, intrusive thoughts somewhat under control.

Secondly, labels are helpful on an emotional level. The relief I felt when I was diagnosed with OCD was enormous. I had known for quite a while that I had the condition, but when I was officially bestowed with it by a psychiatrist, quite suddenly, I knew I wasn’t the only one who was plagued by intrusive thoughts and ruminations. Now I can connect with other people who happen to also be autistic, obsessive, compulsive and/or Tourettic, without feeling guilty that I do not have the official paperwork to back up my suspicions.

On a day to day basis, people don’t tend to announce their medical conditions. But online, some wonderful people decide to open up. I don’t have any real-life friends with autism or OCD or Tourette’s. But the fact that I can share similar experiences with people across the globe makes me feel less alone, and that, I would argue, can only be a good thing.

It’s OK to Hate Being Chronically Ill

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There are a lot of disability advocates out there promoting how disability and neurodiversity can be an excellent addition to the world, enrich our lives and be a boon to society.

This is, in my opinion an excellent conversation to be having.

After all, there is so much negative language surrounding disabilities and neurodiversity. We talk about people being “confined” to a wheelchair when they might as well see themselves as being liberated by their wheelchair. We talk about people “suffering” from autism when, I for one, do no such thing.

I don’t see my autism as an illness, it’s a condition I happen to have and it makes me who I am – the good bits and the bad.

But the same doesn’t go for my Tourette’s. I see my Tourette’s as an illness. It’s a chronic and incurable pain in the arse. I hate it. It’s done me no good. It’s made it hard to find work and keep work when I’ve got work. It’s made life awkward, embarrassing and oftentimes physically painful. It cost me one relationship when an ex decided to tell me she thought I was “putting on” my tics because I’d read about Tourette’s somewhere.

Opinions differ across the community. Some people with Tourette’s wouldn’t want to do away with it at all, saying it makes them who they are. Other people go through extensive treatments and therapies to try to rid themselves of their most problematic tics.

What I’m trying to say is, it’s all right to embrace one aspect of your neurodiversity and dislike another aspect of your neurodiversity. It’s all right to hate being chronically ill. It’s all right to love and hate your difference at the same time.

Being neurodiverse in a neurotypical world is difficult. All opinions and feelings are valid.

Things People Actually Have Said to Me About My OCD, Autism, Tourette’s and Depression

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  • That a vitamin could cure my depression
  • That I couldn’t be autistic because I was in a relationship
  • That I couldn’t be autistic because I used to work in a bar
  • That I couldn’t have Tourette’s because I used to work in a bar
  • That I was ‘putting on’ my Tourette’s because I had read about it somewhere and was imitating its symptoms
  • That my OCD was a ‘good thing’
  • That everyone is a little bit OCD
  • That everyone is a little bit autistic
  • That everyone gets depression
  • That if I really understood my Tourette’s I would be able to control it
  • That I should just “think the bad word in my head” instead of saying it out loud
  • That I should just ‘calm down’ when having a literal tic attack
  • That my depression was ‘all in my head’
  • That I didn’t deserve my depression 

Actually Autistic

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I’m autistic, actually. This not a sentence I go around telling anyone and everyone, but what the hell, it’s out there now.

My silence was for a number of reasons.

Firstly, a silly part of me thinks I’m too high-functioning to deserve the diagnosis. A spectrum disorder, some people need a lot more care and support than I do to make their way through life. I’m largely independent, can hold down a job and relationship, and, having lovely family and friends, am not half as isolated as some people on the spectrum.

Secondly, people’s perceptions of autism are, well, usually wrong. So often, the stereotype is of a male maths whizz who is socially awkward, aloof. I already have to battle with the stereotypes of Tourette’s. To battle with more stereotypes seems a bit too much of an effort I just don’t need.

Thirdly, I don’t want autism to define me. It makes me who I am, of course. But I don’t want to be labelled as Alice the autistic woman. I’m just a person who happens to be on the spectrum. My personality is bigger than the diagnostic criteria for ASD.

But I am, most definitely autistic. I have the “right” comorbidities: Tourette’s, OCD, depression. I get obsessively passionate about subjects: music mostly, but also ads and TV shows. I take things literally, hating metaphors such as “it’s no skin off my nose”, because I literally think of skin coming off a nose. I also can get overwhelmed by loud sounds and crowds, have an excellent memory and an eye-for-detail.

One doctor said he didn’t believe I had autism because I was previously a bartender: a job he deemed impossible for autistic people to do.

That’s crap, of course. An excellent memory for cocktail specs is a boon in the bartending industry, and interacting with drunk people is the easiest thing in the world (hint: you can say anything).

So, I’m autistic, and I’m going to be talking about it more from now on. Because, if every high-functioning female on the spectrum were to remain silent as I have been, then society’s stereotypes will never change, and that, of course, would be a terrible shame.

We Are Next

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The other week, I was lucky enough to speak on We Are Next – a podcast targeted at students trying to get into the advertising world and junior talent. I spoke about the difficulties applying and interviewing when you have the added bonuses of autism and Tourette’s. You can listen to the podcast here.