Troublesome People – a New Year’s Resolution. #autism

December 30, 2017 § 6 Comments




A post about unhelpful relationships. 

You’re fantastic! I’m blown away by how many of you lovely readers have found your way to this site and even returned multiple times this year.  Though I recently hit a dry spell I’ve returned to my stats page with a thrill.

I’m so grateful, because writing on The Other Side has been incredibly freeing for me. As an invisibly disabled person, I know that online blogs can be a lifeline – and mine has enabled me to spread my wings both personally and professionally in so many ways. Having company along the way has been the proverbial cherry.

My golden rules for writing are twofold. I’m careful to write mainly about myself, and try not to speak for others. I also write from experience. This has been vital in finding my voice, and in gaining the confidence to write what’s uppermost in my mind.

Along with some pretty fabulous events and opportunities this year, I’ve had cause to understand my vulnerability in relationships. It isn’t easy to own it.

But this can be a real problem for us – perhaps especially so for the late diagnosed autistic – who may have learned false coping strategies in relationships. We may need to learn a new and very particular discernment in the people we allow into our lives. For some of us it may be news that we even have choices where people are concerned.

It pains me to say that we might more easily be a target for unhealthy advances, but I think we often can be – unless we get wise, that is. In my professional life I’m a mentor to others, and I feel a responsibility to share my growing sense of heightened vulnerability in certain areas.

Apropos of which, I’ve begun to notice a particular type of advance from what I will call the faux enabler, who can present in many forms. Such individuals seek to help others as a way of gaining social currency, or even to obscure their own vulnerabilities. To be fair, they may not be aware of their own motivations – it can be a shock to some of us whose survival has depended on the ability to be deeply introspective and self-critical, that others don’t apply the same rigour to their lives. We ourselves are surely not without fault, but we’re often more prone to fall into self-doubt and try to ‘right’ ourselves (in my experience).

Unfortunately, autism can offer a touch of glamour for such minds. The trouble with this should be obvious, and it often is for family and friends, who may try to warn you that you’re the target of an unhealthy interest. My advice is to listen.

But I’m of the view that gauging the genuine enabler is not as hard as it may seem at first. There are some clear markers. Genuine enablers tend to keep a healthy distance while offering concrete, discernible assistance (of the kind which is actually needed) without making too much noise about it.

The faux enabler, in stark contrast, will zoom in and make constant demands on your attention. At first this can be flattering – you are being wooed. But it’s only a question of time before the intense emotional needs of the faux enabler begin to surface. Once more it may not be obvious. Often we have may have adapted to be kind beyond the norm. We may feel uncomfortable, but still we ignore the warning signs. Mixed signals may be to blame for our confusion – this in itself is a clue. Being ‘nice’ while messing with your head is reason enough to run for the hills.

Yes, giving your attention to such people is to lose your centre of gravity ultimately, because their need to be needed is so vast that you will likely be sucked into a vortex of unhelpful helpfulness. Again, I honestly think this may be unconscious in some cases, but this doesn’t make it any less troublesome to deal with.

Attention grabbers, in retrospect, were always obvious. The thing to grasp is how very smoke and mirrors some people can be – heaping praise and attention on you, while perhaps trying to separate you from a core group of friends and/or dominating all the spaces you might naturally inhabit. This should be a red light, but in the moment it can feel quite natural, and even be pleasurable until you begin to notice that something is wrong. You have been socially seduced with a view to ownership – in the more extreme cases.

The key to it all, I reckon, is to be wary of any person paying too close attention to you, while indulging in blanket flattery. If this is not a romantic relationship apply the brakes at once. It’s important to understand that you don’t have to reciprocate. This is neither unfriendly or cruel. The faux enabler will soon find a new target.

Genuine enablers are usually more discerning and are able to step back into their own lives. Anyone who offers to back you up without such discernment doesn’t actually have your best interests at heart. Deep down what they want is to keep you tied to them.

Manipulation is quite an art, and I’m currently reading an interesting novel called, based on a true story, by Delphine de Vigan. Being fiction (and a thriller at that) it is an extreme and ultimately violent example – but the patterns of faux enablement are spot on.

It plots the trajectory of a relationship which ultimately serves to immobilise and almost destroy the first person narrator. Delphine plays with what she calls “the Real” in her fiction – the book is perhaps autobiographical to a point, but she deconstructs the form as the novel progresses – and you never quite know where the boundaries lie. I was intrigued by this conceit.

In choosing this book, I was conscious of looking for further confirmation of my thinking  on this subject (novelists can be so observationally wise).

It’s perhaps important to conclude with the view that faux enablers are not necessarily ‘bad people’ per se. They may have good intentions which are simply maladaptive. This is tricky, because the truly malicious person may be easier to discern and disengage from. In the end it doesn’t really matter – the only thing which does matter is you. Withdrawing from a toxic relationship is more important than being able to make a judgement on another person’s motivations, in terms of survival this is irrelevant information.

Owning our vulnerabilities and self-safeguarding come together, in my view. There is no way around this, but knowing it brings greater fortitude where social manipulation is concerned. Such wisdom is hard won and worth holding on to despite the pain of understanding that we may be susceptible to being played.

So my New Year’s resolution is to take a deep breath, and step back in making new relationships as a matter of course. And I do so hope this post will be helpful to others.

A peaceful and happy 2018 to you all.

NB The photograph which accompanies this post is of a work which focuses Anglo Spanish childhood. The book is an English translation of the poems of Federico García Lorca. Lorca was in-prisoned and executed by the Fascist insurgents under the command of General Franco, who later became Spain’s dictator for almost 40 years. 


The unmasking #autism

December 23, 2017 § 8 Comments


A post in which I write about late autism diagnosis and masking. I speak only for myself (as ever). Some autistics are not able to mask, and others may not unmask in the ways I describe. 

I’m more than a little wary of making an analogy between the unmasking process in adult autism, and addiction. It’s not the same thing at all – and yet the demands to perform neurotypicality are both toxic and habitual (by societal demand).

The journey of becoming more myself (as an autistic person) is one of awareness and self-discipline. A diagnosis of autism has meant I’ve had to identify the deep run socialisation that goes counter to my neurology. This essentially means learning to stop using the camouflage strategies that have helped me survive in the social world.

Tuning in to others, adapting and moulding ourselves to their perceived needs is indeed survival mode behaviour, which has been called masking. You can imagine how tiring it is to maintain this over time, and why recovery periods are needed. The concentration and adrenalin needed to get through certain situations can be tantamount to sitting an exam.

One especially heinous side effect is that you can lose all sense of yourself. It seems that imitation lies at the core of this adaptive behaviour, and inhabiting other personas can (in my experience) leave you feeling hungover and disorientated for days to come.

But what happens when you begin to unpick this learned behaviour? What happens when you stop shape-shifting because you’ve understood how much it’s harming you?

This is a gradual process (in my view) which also ebbs and flows. There are still many occasions where masking is required. I still slip it on unconsciously at times, but with a growing sense of awareness.

I’m learning all about giving up masking right now, as I’m full tilt on a project and simply can’t combine this level of focus with successful masking. My project burns away at the waxy candle ends of my mind at 3am most days. I have a tight deadline, and I need to apply new skills. I revel in every moment of it.

Sure I’m in a tight spot and I don’t enjoy the insomnia, but I’m stretching my mind and can wallow in the glory that is hyper-focus!

It just means I can’t pay much attention to social niceties, and so I’ve gone monosyllabic. Social media stretches like chewing gum before my eyes. I’ve started to cancel appointments.

Yet I find that I like myself more and am increasingly more content.

Who knew that a smily face or hand clapping emojis could be such incredibly satisfying shorthand? Bless their makers, for they say everything you need when you don’t have the time or resources to mask. I find, for example, that I most enjoy leaving a one word comment these days or a quick social nod with a like.

It makes me feel solid and good.

Concision is a new find in my social lexicon. Just say less!

This perhaps should not come as lightbulb discovery so late in life, but when you’re socialised to be a pleaser you tend to provide substantial amounts of social glue.

But unmasking means changing habits and changing thought patterns too. Unmasking means I can begin to find my own contours and stay me shaped for longer. This makes it easier to locate myself if I have to mask. I can recover more quickly too.

There are still major obstacles to overcome, but this is new. This is revolutionary!



Bully off! #autism

November 9, 2017 § 9 Comments

IMG_8484I’ve recently been a target of an attempt at bullying. I didn’t think this could happen to me, so I’m writing because I want to help others feel safer and stronger. I found my experience shocking as it is many, many years since I felt such visceral fear, though with the right support I saw it for what it was – a vindictive sham. Momentarily,  it had taken me back to when I was 11 years old and cornered in an underpass outside my school, outnumbered by a gang of girls primed to beat me up. I feel the most constructive way to deal with this is to speak out and share my thoughts on effective autistic self protection. 

I’ve known social disdain of a subtle kind all my life, from those who think themselves more socially sophisticated and who remain aloof. I stopped caring a very longtime ago, and sought more genuine interactions.

I’ve also known open hostility – yes of course I have. Humans can be fickle, and relationships sometimes brittle.  Autistics get things ‘socially wrong’ a lot. We tend to stick out for ideas and principles, and this can get us into ‘hot water’ with others who want us to be pliable and polite. You learn to deal with it because it’s part of the scenery – an inevitable consequence of engagement with an illogical, and frankly, socially biased world.

It’s easier now that I have my diagnosis of autism and a growing bank of personal truths, honed from lived experience. For example, I now feel it’s a cruel thing to withhold knowledge of an autism diagnosis (an act some people think is best for their child). However well intentioned, this can’t be helpful in the long term. I understand why it happens, and that it may seem ‘kind’ from a certain perspective, but I think it could serve to block native survival strategies.

It is said that autistics are prone to bullying. Aside from ableism, I think there are probably  two main reasons. The first being that humans can be incredibly cruel and also self-serving (non-news, I know), the second that we have an important hard-wired disadvantage in areas of communication. Others have written before me, and far more eloquently, on the importance of using our own autistic means of sussing out more complex human interactions, pattern recognition being one such.

Seen this behaviour before? Been down this route more than once? Eventually a discernible pattern emerges, and we can with any luck begin to pre-empt some of the trouble. It’s excellent advice, but not without difficulty. It can take a LOT of negative experiences to pick out the patterns – especially when we are repeatedly told we are wrong, as we grow up and beyond. More subtle sabotage, as we invest our efforts in learning ever changing rules of ‘neurotypical’ social engagement – only to have the rug pulled on our efforts time and time again.

This is why I return so often, in my writing and all my thinking, to the need for autistic spaces, and the passing down of autistic wisdom. We can’t do this ‘your’ way – but we can do it our way if you just let us be.

So what would happen if we stopped being endlessly ‘polite’, and trying to please other people?  Might this free us to gauge a person’s intentions through their actions? If we’re free to filter out their words will we see more clearly what they’re up to? I think so. If I had listened to some of my autistic friends sooner (rather than trying so hard to remain polite), I could have protected myself and that’s an encouraging truth. Our wisdom can be very effective – if we are allowed to develop and use it.

There have also been ‘neurotypical’ friends who’ve helped me confront the truth of my situation. In fact one of the most supportive experiences has been to have this manipulation and bullying named by others who could see it more clearly (in the moment) from an NT perspective.

If actions, as the truism goes, ‘speak louder than words’ then we’re doubly disadvantaged by allowing ourselves to fold under the power of verbal communication, or trust to language (especially when it’s so slippery and casually used in the first place). The inner freedom to red flag such dissonance (between action and words) seems important.  Won’t we be more alert to subtle manipulation if we can really place our focus where it’s needed?

So if you’re in any doubt and feeling uncomfortable, ask yourself what a true friend would do, rather than what a self-appointed ‘friend’ says. Some bullies seem to come from nowhere, others are brought in through the back door by our so-called friends (the regular wolves in sheep’s clothing).

And perhaps a person who avows their friendship, but looks the other way while the bully acts, is not a friend after all? No. Of course they’re not. They may even be acting in concert and complicity.

But our trouble (rather than lacking empathy) is often that we’re too kind, and too considerate for too long – we’ve been groomed to listen politely to other people despite the obvious damage they do us. We can be prey to hangers on.

So, don’t allow a situation to drift, until you feel the visceral fear of the unknowing autistic child cornered outside the school gates, or menaced in the underpass out of sight of the teachers, quite outnumbered by the bully gang. Don’t wait to be openly threatened for things to ‘become clear’. You’ll soon see, by looking back carefully at the behavioural signs, that they were always there.

Nip it in the bud. Look to how you feel (give yourself time to process), and break it off as soon as you’re uneasy or confused by the behaviour of someone who is supposed to be your friend. I’ll call this (ironically of course) applied behavioural analysis.

Autistics will know what I’m getting at.




Face it! #prosopagnosia #autism.

November 1, 2017 § 11 Comments

IMG_2606I’ll put it out there – I’ve had a very challenging time of it recently.

It’s a funny thing finding out you’re autistic late in life. I still sometimes wake up in surprise at my ‘newfound’ situation – and lately find myself astonished at some random moment in my day when my autism is revealed to me as such.

I thought these ‘quirks’ were just me – and they are. But they are also autism. These are the ways in which being me are autistic. It’s quite glorious and freeing – but I also get to grapple with how disabled I can be in many situations, particularly interpersonal ones.

The other day I stumbled on a new old friend – prosopagnosia – a form of face blindness. I can actually recognise faces and can be remarkably good at remembering where I know a face from (once I rolodex and pin down the exact circumstance in which I got to know the face in question). This is so satisfying! For years this skill even tricked me into thinking I was quite brilliant at recognising faces. It’s a good example of how compensation skills can mask disability.

So, it was surprising to me that some years before my diagnosis, I was presented with a room of 6 years olds whose features I found confusing to the point of blankness. Seen as a group I just couldn’t tell them apart – the fact that they moved around so much didn’t help either! Vestibular issues are at the heart of many of my visual/spatial challenges and so this figures.

More puzzling still was the time I thought a photograph of a man was me. This should have  provoked more curiosity on my part than it did – but my bemusement at the time was quite drowned out by the mirth it caused my family who rolled about at my mistake. I myself found it quite hilarious, I must admit.

Looking back I see how contextual my facial recognition is. The evidence before my eyes was suspect even to me. What a big nose I had! What were those shadows on my face? All I could do was shrug at the loss of looks age seemed to bring!

Turns out it was not my nose, and the shadows were sideburns (!) but the point was that it should have been me, because the photograph was taken during a boat trip in which I was there. Other family members appear. They are  sitting exactly in front of where I was sitting on the boat, (precisely where the male interloper seems to sit). Working backwards I now realise that it’s the angle that’s wrong – and so I simply don’t appear. Some strange man (who I don’t remember being there) is sitting where I should be! He’s right in front of my niece – where I should be!

Context overrode all visual evidence to the contrary.  Blimey!

This episode was brought to the fore more recently when a similar blunder occurred. I mistook two random men in a photograph for two collaborating artists (one of whom took the photograph). Here the narrative which drives their creative project overrode the obvious evidence before my eyes. It was potentially embarrassing – but at least I can now say that I am in some ways quite face blind. My strategies are incredibly honed – and I do hold faces in my mind (I love looking at faces too), but this becomes weakened and breaks down easily it seems.

It’s more evidence of the quite different ways in which I piece the world together, and the myriad ways in which I must work harder and can get left behind.

It also makes me prey to misunderstanding, and frankly abuse. It’s not fun finding out you’re vulnerable to manipulation, but it’s important to face it (and take protective measures).

I’ll end this post on that delicious pun.





The longest day. #autism

September 13, 2017 § 1 Comment




Some days I hear blather.

It’s talking or something else.

You say it.

And we cut the grass.

The wind blows.

She is moaning.

Causation, causation.

I will meet you at the station.

Ah, but you won’t be there.

Because this is the longest day.


And I won’t swim in the sea,

or even touch it with my toes.






Postcard from another place #autism

August 11, 2017 § 7 Comments


These days it feels like I’m in another country. Landscapes fall away and I float  above them. Nothing is fixed and yet I feel more stable.

Life’s problems abound, don’t get me wrong about that.

No one has waved a magic wand. Yet it is possible to feel both lighter and more substantial.

I have been writing now about my personal and professional journey as an autistic woman since March 2016.

The journey metaphor is unavoidable (is it not?) Such cliches adhere to the collective consciousness for a reason. Like barnacles on a boat – they’re not going anywhere. And they’re real.

The landscapes we carry within us are the other eternal and lasting image. Humans are we, all tasked with mediating our inner and outer geographies.

You might well know what I mean when I say I’ve crossed a border. And I have.

Cliche, after cliche would like to trip off my unwilling tongue. No going back, is one such.

Early on I wrote about onion layers peeling off as I became revealed to myself incrementally, after my late in life diagnosis of autism. That is still true but I dislike onions. Day old peelings in the food recycling caddy press against my eyelids and shake a fist at my nostrils. I reach for the window and throw up the sash. Give me fresh air and landscape any day. Give me journeys too.

Eye watering in the wrong way are the fresh chops and the stale skins.

I like footsteps and most any kind of tree. A train window. The urban picturesque.

As long as the journey is circular and I am returned to myself. And daily I am. It’s the views from the windows that alter. Have altered.

More irony.

How can I be so contrary to the world? It’s shifting off its axis with the weight of the improbable. A discomfiting on a global scale shades but doesn’t dim my growing comfort with myself.

I’m sorry I chose this moment in history to have such good fortune. No actually I’m not. It’s never a bad time to know yourself.

But if I seem distant, if I’m somewhat removed, it’ll be because I’m somewhere new.

One day I’ll send you a postcard. Or maybe I just have.

Turning up for work #autism

July 29, 2017 § 7 Comments



#3 in the Orphaned Identities series

(A photograph from my Orphaned Identities series.) 

I was recently commissioned by the Arts Council, to undertake a case study of my practice as an autistic arts professional, in order  to design a series of access measures – which may also be of benefit to others. I’m learning a great deal, some of which I share here in the hope that it will contribute to the conversation about access at work.

I research at the coalface of freelance work and in conversation with other autistic professionals. Patterns are emerging at this midway point in my funded work.

This study has thrown up something important. Namely that there can be a real difference in perceptions about what ‘turning up for work’ means when collaborating as a freelance.

In my own case I’m learning that my standards are high – perhaps usually so. Also that I need to be in direct control of my work flow, especially when a project is complex, and in circumstances where I have high responsibility for outcomes.

This doesn’t present a problem in projects with clearly defined roles with discrete responsibilities where a standard of expectation is reliably matched.  Through An Artist’s Eye was a perfect example of when this works well.

Autism is a professional asset. If you work with us you’ll often find meticulously organised people getting results, and meeting deadlines absolutely on time.

This is because we can often see the job that has to be done with great clarity. Myself, I work methodically paying attention to the parts, with an aerial view of the whole constantly in mind. Holding this level of focus is joyful and important to me. An athlete fresh off the blocks I’m running in full flow.

This is my rhythm and my method. And it works. This is so because my work and my being are as one.

So my commitment is absolute whether the work is a hard won commission with public funds, or a personal project like Orphaned Identities. I’m on it 100%.

I’m beginning to understand that a well designed project (autistically speaking) has controllable elements and can be worked through directly and systematically using flow, and also hyper focus whenever needed. While a poorly designed one has too greater reliance on third parties who may be remote, unavailable or seemingly ‘unreliable’ from an autistic perspective.

Such obstacles can seriously disrupt autistic flow on creative projects. And this represents disablement in action. Disrupting autistic thinking in a workspace, with the need for constant negotiation of terms (for example) or through distance and serial delays, has the effect of derailing purpose, and furthermore overloading functional capacity – and there’s absolutely no need for this with some careful thought to design with respect for access.

Chasing the tail of a consistently unavailable colleague (for example) can be extraordinarily stressful, not to say aversive.  Such practices are perhaps commonplace in freelancing – but can have an effect not unlike ‘trolling’ on an autistic person. The toxicity of poor design in the workplace for autistics can’t really be overstated.

Matching commitment can also be an issue, and there’s an element of luck, which has nothing to do with neurology. ‘Discipline’ can sometimes be lacking in freelance environments, which can present a minefield of wrong-footing.

Building strategies for survival is essential. And when I say survival I mean it in the truest of senses – not in the breezy way it’s used in magazine style journalism. A real dilemma that we face is that our non-autistic colleagues may not absorb the seriousness of socially disabling bias’ at work because we’re often so conscientious.

This raises the issue of training for our non-autistic colleagues. In conversation with my fellow professionals there emerges a powerful consensus among us that training must be autistic led if it is to be of actual benefit to autistic people – who after all should be the natural recipients of positive change.

As an individual in a freelance setting – my growing feeling is that designing my own access measures is essential to create the best fit for me, but that autistic led training for colleagues could be an excellent complimentary addition in future.

Currently this is all still very much a work in progress – but I’m immensely grateful to my autistic colleagues for their invaluable input into my thinking. Being able to situate our practices within community is a consummate survival strategy in itself. This is why the future direction of my research in this area will focus on networks.

The issues I raise are common to a growing network of autistic professionals – currently we suffer the demands to mask our ‘condition’ due to socially embedded expectations at work. This is seriously disabling and real access challenge in freelance situations.









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