The Dysfunctional Executive: Problem Solving

“We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them”

― Albert Einstein

When life seems like one long, puzzling matrix of random connections: problem solving becomes a survival skill. So far, I have not survived very well.

What’s in the mix?

Attention is key to problem solving, as is planning and most of the other executive functions. The core skill is being able to come up with an action plan. This skill depends heavily on your ability to think flexibly and monitor yourself and your performance.

What’s the Problem?

The main problems I struggle with involve social or emotional intelligence, or applying the appropriate level of detail. Coming up with a suitable action plan is another issue. Knowing when to stick to it and when to adapt it is equally problematic. And, of course, there are some problems that are totally invisible to me.

It’s funny really, I am a good problem solver in some respects. I can use logic to reach a solution and take emotion right out of the equation, even when assembling flat-pack furniture! Although that’s a skill I have developed with age. When I was in my twenties I used to have regular meltdowns when trying to put one together. Yet, I have managed to resolve some thorny issues.

Problem Solved

A couple of years after my wife and I were married, we had to move quickly, due to harassment, into a house in a new neighbourhood. It became immediately apparent that the situation we had moved into was much worse than the one we had just left.

Our new neighbours were party animals and we regularly witnessed clan warfare outside our front door. Gangs of youths would regularly go into battle with iron bars, bats and missiles of all types, the police would only arrive for the post war meet up. We had jumped out of the frying pan right into the flames of a burning neighbourhood.

That was the problem. Now, how was it to be solved?

My wife turned to grief, regret and anger in almost equal measure. We both experienced anxiety. We stayed out of the house as much as we could. When we approached the border of the neighbourhood on our return, our stomachs would knot up. I was in knots most of the time. I decided to make getting the hell out of Dodge my number one goal. I formulated a plan.

Emotion had no place in that plan.

The first problem was that we had just moved and the local housing manager, who had taken a dislike to us for reasons I still don’t understand, wouldn’t even consider us for another move.

Number one of my action plan was to find out exactly what our rights to move were. We were renting from a social landlord. I knew that gave us more options than being private tenants. This was way before the internet and Google. I hit the local library for information on housing law, liaised with advice agencies, got my local councillor and MP involved. I didn’t stop there.

I knew that my wife’s health condition would make us a priority on the waiting list, should we get on it. So, I mobilised our GP, my wife’s consultant, her occupational therapist and physiotherapist, who all agreed to support our application to be rehoused.

Six months after we had moved in, I obsessed day and night, wrote many letters and considered every angle I could. During those months my wife’s and my own health, both mental and physical, had declined so much that we were taking a cocktail of meds to get through. Any semblance of a plan was long faded. Only my obsession kept me going.

In the end, it was a chance call to a national housing charity that gave me the ultimate leverage I needed. They informed me that our landlord had to consider our request to move if we could prove our circumstance was exceptional. That part was easy.

Our landlord had allowed our former neighbour to harass us despite the fact that she was breaking the terms of her tenancy agreement. They ignored our complaints, refused to take action against our neighbour and, for a long time, refused to allow us to be considered for a move.

Then, when we were desperate enough, they offered us a house in the borough’s worst neighbourhood knowing that we would feel compelled to take it. The effect of moving into a gang war zone had led to a visible decline in our health. I laid this all out in a letter to the area housing manager.

We finally moved out, into a small, quiet flat, a couple of months later.

During the whole process I jumped onto any piece of information that gave us any hope, and approached anyone and everyone for help. I made waves but, had I been organised, we would have made landfall much sooner.

Still, when it comes to emotional or social issues, the problems never seem to get solved.

Puzzles: Social and Emotional

Repairing relationships has been one problem that has plagued me for years. It’s sad to admit, that I have had only two friendships my entire life, and both of those were dysfunctional. One problem I struggle with is knowing how to regulate contact.

One friend wanted, what was for me, a claustrophobic level of contact. I put up with it because I felt that a smothering friendship was better than no friendship at all. This particular friend was also extremely negative. It was not until I met my wife that I realised just how toxic the relationship with him was.

The other friend I had moved away for work. I visited him occasionally and saw him when he retuned home to visit. When he returned home for good I went to see him. Soon afterwards contact abruptly stopped . To this day, I still don’t know what happened. Maybe I didn’t keep enough contact up in this friendship? I honestly don’t know.

This is a good example of me missing the problem altogether.

Even if a problem doesn’t depend on emotional or social skills, I may still struggle. My approach may be highly detailed or superficial.

Where’s the Forest again?

Have you ever seen the Big Bang Theory?

If so, you will probably be aware of the character Sheldon. The show’s writer’s seemed to have given him every conceivable trait of Asperger’s, which is annoying. However, the character illustrates well the hyper detailed approach to problem solving many of us on the spectrum share.

There’s an episode which shows us Sheldon trying to choose a new computer console. His ridiculously detailed and convoluted methods for deciding which console would be best drives him and Amy, his partner, to the edge of despair. Although exaggerated for comedic effect, this episode shows how we on the spectrum get bogged down in detail when problem solving.

At the beginning of the Corona Pandemic I decided to buy myself a weights bench so that I could work out at home. Every one seemed to have exactly the same idea at roughly the same time. It seemed that everyone else had the sense to order one quickly in anticipation of the inevitable rush.

I needed a bench that folded down small enough to fit into a specific space, have a simple folding mechanism, and be strong and stable when assembled. I scoured Amazon, E bay etc. for a good brand, with the right dimensions. I checked every review, considered the weight loading, thickness of the tubing, locking mechanism for the back rest, number of incline positions and so on.

By the time I had found one I was happy with the estimated delivery time was three months from order. By going down the comparison rabbit hole I had missed my chance altogether. That same process has played out so many times in my life. I am incapable of doing what most people do and simply buy something because I like it, or base my purchase on a few important details.

Anxiety and perfectionism, two common traits of ASD, may be key drivers of this hyper detailed approach to problem solving . We are constantly worried about making the wrong choice, of getting it wrong. Maybe this is a consequence of getting things wrong socially all of our lives. The anxiety itself may be completely out of proportion to the problem and may be heightened if our mental resources are already depleted.

Problems solved?

Clearly my problem solving skills could do with overhauling. So, what now? Well, I will continue to explore how other executive functions have, and continue to affect me, and investigate ways to improve them.

The Dysfunctional Executive: Planning

Getting Here

It’s quite a shock to get to fifty four and realize that you struggle to simply manage your life. How could I have missed it for all those years? Well, those years have not been easy for starters. Growing up feeling fundamentally different to everyone else, and not knowing why, doesn’t provide for a foothold on life. Any ground you try to build your self esteem on seems to turn into quick sand. Beginning this blog has, so far, been a blessing and a curse in almost equal measure.

The Awakening

Here, I am forced to write with honesty. I made the decision to set the blog up anonymously to allow myself that freedom. Once I started to write however, that freedom became an imperative. This writing now feels like I am being impelled, reluctantly, forwards. There is now a birthing in these words, a slow, inevitable awakening.

To be accurate, this is a second awakening. The first took the best part of a decade, a decade! That began with a slow dawning that I may be on the spectrum and ended up with a diagnosis of ASD. What is it that’s awakening now? This is the slow unfolding of an autistic consciousness. That must seem strange to you.

You may well say, surely you know that your autistic! Well, yes, I was officially informed over four years ago. What I am now beginning to realise are the full implications of that. Increasingly life is showing me, this blog is showing me, just how much I struggle simply being a human being. This is most sharply highlighted in how I try to manage my emotional and intellectual responses.

My difficulties with interpersonal communication disappear when I am alone. Yet, even in solitude, the struggle to organise the psychological and emotional resources necessary to negotiate my world are manifest. I can no longer ignore them.

The Work

It’s now time to be honest with myself, take a dispassionate look at how I am struggling and begin to figure out what I can do about it. I will look at my issues in relation to each of the executive functions I outlined in ‘Executive Functioning 101’ https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/miningforlight.wordpress.com/288 and then explore possible ways forward. As each of these explorations are likely to be detailed, I will begin here with planning, and explore the other cognitive functions in future posts.

As we discovered in the last post, the executive functions can be broken down into the following areas:

  • Planning
  • Problem Solving
  • Working memory
  • Attention
  • Reasoning
  • Initiation
  • Inhibition
  • Cognitive flexibility
  • Monitoring

Planning

This is a big one for me.

I create the dreaded ‘to do’ list. So far so good. The items on there may have been jotted down at the last minute, as I remember I have to do them; normally at the end of the night. I will put the list on top of my clothes for the next day and go to bed feeling organised.

In the morning I will move it next to my clothes so that I don’t forget it when I am ready. By the time that I am showered and in my clothes the list has vanished. Knocked onto the floor or under the bed, or hidden by the mischievous list Pixies, it is nowhere to be found.

Sadly, even if I manage to remember to bring the list with me, it will end up being left on my desk or scrunched up under my wallet in my pocket, not to be seen for a week. Even if it survives the pocket ordeal, there is no guarantee that the jobs will get done.

I am so easily distracted that I may manage to get one or two tasks done and ticked off, three on a good day. After say, doing the dishes or writing out a shopping list, I may get an email or a text that grabs my attention.

Worst still, I may remember something more important that needs doing straight away. At that point, the train of checking the list, ticking off a job and moving to the next one is derailed. I forget what station I was at, let alone what platform I was on.

Of course, you can use technology to help now.

I am always setting myself reminders on my phone. The problem is, that even if the timer goes off to remind me I need to do something, It may not get done. If I am in the middle of something compelling, I will acknowledge the timer enough switch it off. Yet, my attention will be quickly hijacked by the original activity.

I remain in some sort of trance. This is especially true if I am reading something. I may take my eyes off the page to attend to the timer on my phone but my mind never really leaves the book, part of it is still absorbed.

I hope that you can see from these examples how important attention is to planning, and as we’ll find out, all of the executive functions.

Ways Forward

The next question is, what can I do about these planning problems? As I go through my experiences of struggling with the other executive functions, I believe that we will all see how interrelated, and indeed interdependent, these functions are. With that in mind, I will write a future post in which we can explore ways of improving our executive functioning as a whole.

The next group of posts will, however, focus on my experiences of struggling with the other functions.

So, please feel free to off-load in the comments section about your own planning issues and what strategies you’ve adopted to deal with them. I intend to experiment with various approaches to improving executive functioning and write about the experience in future posts. So, the more suggestions the more approaches I can try.

A 101 on Executive Functioning and ASD

In this post I will introduce you to a key are of difficulty for those of us on the spectrum: executive functioning. First, I will define executive functioning. Then I will list the main executive functions and briefly outline the problems we typically have with them.

This post was originally to include my own struggles with poor executive functioning and what I have learned from exploring the topic. The process of writing it however, was emotionally draining and it was becoming unwieldy. So, what you have now is a basic introduction to the issues involved, which will help you make sense of the next post in which I discuss my own struggle with executive functioning.

What is Executive Functioning?

Executive functioning is a general term for the cognitive functions involved in the regulation, control and management of our thoughts and actions. It’s the neurological processes used in organising ourselves and resources to achieve a particular goal.

It is divided into the following areas of functioning:

  • Planning
  • Problem Solving
  • Working memory
  • Attention
  • Reasoning
  • Initiation
  • Inhibition
  • Cognitive flexibility
  • Monitoring

Let’s explore each of these in turn.

Planning

This is the capacity to manage the actions necessary to achieve a goal or need, either immediately or in the future. It involves:

  • Deciding which tasks are a priority and in what order they should be carried out
  • Considering the best mental resources for each task
  • Coming up with a suitable plan of action

Those of us on the spectrum struggle with all of the above. Being able to come up with a plan for solving an issue means that you have to be able to decide what the key tasks are and in what order to tackle them. Here, those of us on the spectrum are likely to focus on those tasks we are most interested, which may or may not be the most important for solving the problem.

Problem Solving

Being able to identify a problem and come up with a plan to solve it requires skill in most of the other executive functions, for example being able to hold information in working memory.

Another issue that hinders are problem solving prowess is how we apply our attention.

One explanation for the difficulties we have with attention is called Weak Central Coherence (Also called context blindness or monotropism). We tend to focus much more on specific, isolated details leading to a fragmented understanding of the whole of a situation.

This may explain why, for example, I couldn’t find my dictionary on my desk yesterday. I found myself looking all over the desk. I noticed I was looking at the desk in zones: by the printer zone, by the lamp zone etc. I was so focused on writing on my laptop that I couldn’t ‘pull back’ and look at my desk as a whole.

I don’t know how many times I have lost my car in a car park because it became lost in an ocean of other vehicles!

Working Memory

This is the ability to keep information in your short term memory long enough to complete a task. People with ASD are notorious for having poor working memory. It manifests in many ways. I, for example, really struggle with people’s names, I forget them almost as soon as I’m told which only serves to heighten my social anxiety. Poor working memory also plays havoc with my ability to navigate, I’ll talk more about this in my next post.

Attention

This is closely related to working memory problems and social processing disorder (SPD), I mentioned in my previous post.

https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/miningforlight.wordpress.com/236

Those of us with ASD are great at hyper-focusing on specific details but really struggle with placing our focus. Tony Attwood, in ‘The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome’ outlined four areas of attention where Aspies have problems:

  • Maintaining attention:
    • We may be hyper-focused if we’re interested or be highly distractable if not.
  • Attention to relevant information:
    • Our focus is more likely to be hijacked by irrelevant information
  • Shifting attention:
    • We’re monotropic, we tend to have a one track mind
    • We struggle to switch between activities – especially if we haven’t finished the first one (i.e. we have major completion issues!)
  • Encoding attention:
    • That is, remembering what was attended to – Attwood describes this as information not being encoded properly

Needless to say sensory sensitivities will interfere with a person’s ability to focus. It’s hard to take in information when the buzzing or flickering of fluorescent lighting is causing you to feel nauseous for example. Also, any problem being able to maintain attention will interfere with the functioning of short-term memory.

Reasoning

Those with ASD struggle with verbal reasoning. We may have problems understanding, communicating or integrating them properly. If these concepts have attached social meanings, then they may be particularly difficult to assimilate.

Aspies also tend to be inflexible in our reasoning also. Because of monotropism, we may have difficulties considering new strategies and be less aware of alternative solutions to problems.

Initiation

Initiation is the ability to start an activity, action plan or task. We are not lacking the will – we just can’t seem to get started. Of course, attention, SPD problems with impulsivity and so on will also feed into this problem.

Inhibition

Those of us on the spectrum are known to have issues with impulse control. Our ability to restrain our emotional, cognitive or physical reactions in real-time can be severely compromised. This can manifest in a range ways, from suddenly talking about a random subject, interrupting or talking over someone, to having a full blown meltdown.

Sensory Processing Disorder: Oversensitive, Me?

In this post I will explore the role sensory sensitivities play in making, simply being in the world, difficult for me. For those of you who don’t know, allow me to explain a little about this fascinating and frustrating phenomena, a phenomena that goes way beyond the Autistic population.

What is Sensory Sensitivity?

It’s a sensitivity to the sensory inputs that we are bombarded with everyday, and that most people take in their stride. It manifests in two main ways:

  • As a Hypersensitivity to a particular sensory input – that is, experiencing a sense more intensely than others
  • As a hyposensitivity to a particular input – experiencing it less intensely that others

Someone on the spectrum may be hypersensitive to the flickering of fluorescent lights for example. This may be intense enough to induce migraines or even vomiting. Someone else may be hyposensitive to pain and not realise they’ve broken their ankle for days.

That’s not the worst of it. Those with ASD also have problems with integrating sensory input. Sensory integration is the process through which the central nervous system takes all of the sensory signals fed to it from the five senses and formulates appropriate motor or behavioural responses. It’s why you automatically pull your hand away from a hot tap. Or, why an autistic person may recoil from you if you unexpectedly touch them.

Because these issues involve the processing of sensory information, people who have them are said to have Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). This is a condition that doesn’t just affect those with ASD (Autistic Spectrum Disorder). Sensory processing disorder is seen in those with ADHD, Schizophrenia and even those with Borderline Personality Disorder. You can find a more detailed explanation of it here:

I hope that you are now begining to see how, having multiple under or over sensitivities to various sense inputs, as well as problems integrating them, has a profound effect on someone’s ability to socialise and communicate effectively. The reciprocal relationship between sensory processing difficulties and social or cognitive problems is now a key focus for research.

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1878929316301736

So, that’s the general picture. What’s it like to suffer from it?

SPD and Me

First, lets explore my auditory issues. I’ll discuss other sensory problems in future posts. For me, many sounds seem amplified to irritating or painful proportions. The sound of a football for example, when it impacts something, like a kerb or fence, goes off like bomb in my ears. That sounds strange enough, right? What’s stranger is that the distance I am away from the ball decides how intensely feel it. If I am playing with a ball, or really close to where it’s being played, then the effect is mild but ramps up over time, to the point where I have to move away. That may not help however, because the ‘aural explosions’ increase in intensity the further I am away. To me, children playing football in the street often sounds like a bomb disposal unit riding a field of line mines.

My hypersensitivity to noise also disrupts my sleep. Late at night or early morning, I imagine most of us are more aware of the sound scape of our neighbourhoods. Imagine this.

It’s now two in the morning and my mind is sparking like the naked end of a live wire. I am already on edge thanks to the feline gang fight showering the still night with aural mortar shells that sound like the wailing of demonic infants. Things settle for a while. Then the sound of angry metal as neighbours return from a night out. They seem to slam every door and talk with a megaphone like volume. Things settle again. Then, what is that tapping noise? Who’s slamming a bin lid down at this hour? A trapped rat it turns out, after much toing and froing and curtain rustling. And on it goes.

Now, none of this is unusual except for its intensity. Later I realise that neighbours are actually whispering at such times. Unfortunately that’s not how I experience it. Most of the above noises will be unexpected which adds another layer of discomfort. My mind then becomes hypervigilant, a vigilance that only slowly recedes through the advance of sheer exhaustion. Often though, it’s not a particular sound that’s distressing.

In certain situations I am overwhelmed by, what I call, the Gull Effect. I have experienced this dreadful phenomena while on training courses, in restaurants, even in the aftermath of a funeral. When enough people flock together and discuss anything that’s remotely interesting to them there’s a danger of inducing the Gull effect.

During the break of a training course I was once forced to endure, the conversation turned to football. Despite coming from a city with two great football teams I have no interest in the sport, or any team sport for that matter. As any sports fan will tell you however, sports talk elicits strong passions. Before long, what started out as an idle conversation between colleagues became a parliamentary-sized debate.

People started talking over, under and across each other. Conversations become complex streams of verbalisations that began to lose their meaning. This group enjoying a bit of sports banter, for me, quickly became a flock of seagulls squabbling over a discarded French Fry. It was as if the razor bill of each gull was slashing at my inner ears. I quickly retreated to the toilet.

Problems filtering conversations are common for those of us on the spectrum. Before I was diagnosed I didn’t know what was wrong with me. In a pub, I would easily lose track of the conversation. I would nod at the wrong time, answer the wrong person, or just sit in silence. Over time I would become invisible. People would have conversations across me, oblivious to my existence. Of course, sensory problems extend beyond the Aural.

Being on the spectrum can be a real pain, or be completely pain free, depending on the input. A recent example. A few weeks ago, when the great British weather lulled me into a false sense of security, I erected a pop-up gazebo in the garden. The only place I can fit it is on a small patio area right outside the door to the garden, which has two steep steps leading up to it.

I completely forgot to raise the posts of the gazebo up on that side, so that when I walked back into the house I had to duck down to avoid the top of the frame. I didn’t avoid it, but smacked right into it. I uttered a few choice words and got on with cooking dinner. Over an hour later, I couldn’t figure out why my head felt wet until I saw my fingers dripping with red blood after I had patted it. My daughter told me that the wound looked as if I had taken a cheese grater to my head. Being less sensitive to pain is only one issue though.

I hate being tickled. I hate, hate, hate it. When I was young my dad would tickle me and my brother, who would roll on the floor in fits on giggles. It felt like my dad was digging the ends of his fingers into my ribs or pinching pieces of flesh from my belly. I learned that you were supposed to smile and enjoy it. So, I would squirm and wriggle just like my brother but I was just trying my best to escape.

Eventually, I would realise that escape was futile. I would then panic and eventually lash out, often sending my father’s glasses halfway across the room. Needless to say fun time was over. Loud, shouty time had just begun. I couldn’t understand why I would get bawled at for something I had no control over. Thankfully that’s one issue I was able to leave behind in childhood. Others, sadly, bother me to this day.

I don’t like being hugged. It’s oppressive and feels like an intrusion. One of the few benefits of living in the current world of Covid-19, is that no one is rushing to invade your personal space anymore. If I am surprise hugged, the worst type, I become a stiff mannequin, it takes me some time for me to reanimate.

Yet, hugging is such a part of our social culture that opting out, up until now, has never been an option. If I am upset, being hugged doesn’t really help, it only gives me more to process at a time when I am already struggling. I do appreciate the sentiment behind being hugged. I understand that for some people it’s important to be hugged, they need that feeling of connection at that particular time. So, in those circumstances I am happy to give or receive a hug, but that’s limited to my wife and children. Ok, let’s take stock.

We.ve explored the world of SPD and I have shown you some of my sensory difficulties. As you can imagine, they have caused many issues. My auditory sensitivity has made being in groups very difficult. Being in any group situation causes me high levels of anxiety that has often become panic and so, where possible, I have opted out. This has had a devastating effect on my education and employment options. Being frozen still by the sudden hug has caused no end of relationship issues, fortunately I have an understanding wife and brilliant children. My son and I, for example, have the developed a shoulder hug that works great for us both.

Anyway, that’s enough of me. How about you?

SDP and you?

Yes, I mean you! Remember, social processing disorder is not restricted to autism. It is also present in other conditions. More than this, as with all the traits of developmental disorders like ASD, ADHD etc., they exist to some extent in the general population. If you have a story of sensitivity, please feel free to share in the comments.

Masking: Why I need a Maskenectomy.

“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”

Oscar Wilde

For a neurotypical individual, someone whose brain is wired normally, Oscar was spot on. Give someone a mask and they’ll likely stop editing themselves immediately and begin landing some brutal truths.

For someone on the spectrum, the very purpose of adopting a mask is to edit the self. So, what are we talking about here?

What is Masking?

If I ask the apparently simpler question ‘What is a mask?’ things start to come into focus:

“Something that serves to conceal or disguise.”


https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/mask

Interestingly, Meriam Webster offers ‘pretence’ and ‘cloak’ as synonyms for mask.

“Covering for the face, as a disguise or protection.”

Harper Collins, 2016, ‘Collins English Dictionary and Thesaurus’

In general terms, when we think of masking we think of it as an act of concealment, of someone adopting a disguise, a pretence that offers some level of protection. People do this for a variety of reasons that range from the practical, presenting the most professional version of themselves in an interview, to the nefarious, projecting an image of a compassionate care worker with the intent of stealing from their elderly clients for example. So that’s the general idea, how does this relate to Autism?

Kieran Rose, an autistic advocate, describes autistic masking in the following way:

“Masking is a build up of layer upon layer of mass complexity, whereby an Autistic person attempts to ‘fit in’ and maintain safety in an endless variety of differing situations and environments by applying in fluctuating degrees often uncontextualised and sometimes rehearsed, learnt behaviours to appropriate situations; whilst simultaneously suppressing natural behaviours and conjunctively their sense of self-identity, initially consciously, over time becoming unconscious, often at great cost.”



https://theautisticadvocate.com/2018/07/masking-i-am-not-ok/

From Rose’s definition we can see that autistic masking is more than simply adopting a useful persona. There are several things going on at once. When masking, someone with ASD (Autistic Spectrum, Disorder) is attempting to:

  • Fit in to a world not designed for them
  • Keep themselves safe
  • Apply an appropriate ‘learnt’ behaviour (E.G. social script )
  • Supress their natural, autistic, behaviour; ultimately, their actual sense of self

Notice that I put the word learnt in quotes. Those with ASD don’t learn social behaviours instinctively like neurotypicals. They often learn scripts based on previous encounters in a formulaic fashion. “Someone acts like this, therefore I act like that.” The problem is that these scripts aren’t transferable and so a complex mental filing system is required to keep track of them all.

Can you imagine having to find the appropriate script, match it to the appropriate body language while simultaneously restraining your natural behaviour? This may or may not be a conscious process, but it does extract a great toll.

It feels like this:

If all this seems a little remote for a personal blog, too much at arms length, then you’ve rumbled me. So, perhaps reluctantly, the next question that needs to be asked is this:

What Does All This Mean For Me?

I was diagnosed when I was fifty. So any mask that I’ve adopted to appear more socially acceptable has long fused itself to my face. Consequently, I can’t say with any degree of accuracy just who I am. I don’t know who I am. Imagine that.

For most of my life I have been a man on an island, an island without a name. I had plenty of names; “loner, freak, misfit, the quiet one (I always hated that one), clueless” etc. Many were badges of dishonour, their sharp pins forced into my alien flesh, but some were self-made appellations.

“Failure” is a home made label. It may be weaved together with the strands of other’s responses: the looks of parental embarrassment; the razor asides of teachers; the hideous glee on the faces of so-called school friends who managed to manipulate me, again, into saying the wrong thing in front of the entire class. Failure, ultimately, is a conclusion you come to yourself based on the available evidence.

I can see now that I stitched myself up. Seeing myself as a failure, by extension meant that I also saw myself as unacceptable. The question I then struggle to answer is – what did I do about it, how did I mask this unacceptable self?

A young boy sits in primary school, squirming in his chair, his raised hand waves maniacally as he tries to get the teacher’s attention. His entire being aches to jump out of that chair, to jump up and down, and blurt out the answer. It’s as if he’s restrained by invisible chains. Chains that whisper, “It’s rude to interrupt…give others a chance to answer…for god’s sake, sit down!”. He’s a small, stout boy with dark skin and an enigmatic, almost oriental face.

A tuft of hair, that could never be kept down, dances as his head bobs this way and that, following the teacher’s finger as it pleads for someone else, anyone else, to answer the damn question. No one does. The teacher capitulates just as the boy launches himself out of his seat, leaving a thousand invisible links clanging on the floor, as he blurts out the answer. He’s oblivious to the children and their disdainful looks. He’s all too aware of the red-faced rage of his teacher and the sharp voice that penetrates his ears like sharp knitting needles. He’s now outside the headmaster’s office, again.

Back home he regales his mother with all of the exciting things he’s learned that day. He’s oblivious to the pans of water producing hot steam on the stove. His mother is in the middle of preparing dinner. He taps the arm that’s trying, desperately, to finish peeling the potatoes. Mum, reluctantly, turns around to bear witness to his informative monologue about the unexpected unearthing of a complete Woolly Mammoth specimen in Russia.

Delivered at pace, and in no particular order, it’s only interrupted when the boy realises that his mother’s turned around again to peel more potatoes. He taps insistently on the arm and eventually grabs it. It’s not his mother that turns to face him. She’s gone. Her long kind face with its oily Mediterranean skin has been hijacked by the face of his teacher. The same ruddy rage and shrill, ear piercing tone causes the boy to jolt in terror. He’s now back in his bedroom, again.

Of course, I was the little boy, the boy who loved to learn and share that knowledge. When your my age, your childhood memories surface as indistinct scenes, the details of which you can never be truly sure of. One thing I am sure of is, that by the time I reached Junior school that boy was dead. He was replaced by an anxious child who realised that it was unacceptable to share your passion for knowledge with others, unacceptable to talk to yourself, unacceptable to fall asleep during a lesson because it was so dull. That child fell in on himself.

At this point it wasn’t a mask that I adopted, it was a cloak. It was a cloak of invisibility. I moved from the front to the back of the class, I engaged with as few people as possible. Whenever I was forced into meaningful communication, I noticed something strange happening. I was speaking using a hybrid script.

This is something that I do to this day. Particularly since I have been diagnosed, I often catch myself saying some else’s phrase. I will be me speaking but in my head it is someone else’s voice. Sometimes this awareness is vague, but at others, I can actually hear the voice of the person I lifted the script from inside my head. It may be a teacher, a TV character, a neighbour, anyone. I’ve noticed something else too.

Back at school, I would often use a phrase out of context. Given that most of these phrases would have been language I’ve absorbed from teachers, you can image how odd that must have seemed. I’m sure there was even a time when I called another child a cretin! That was definitely lifted from one of the science teachers that was ex-military with an anachronistic, middle England, accent. I hope that the accent didn’t accompany the phrase. I must have sounded like a right twerp.

Now that I think about, it I did go through a phase of wearing metal studs on the soles of my shoes. Guess who also wore metal studs on his shoes? Yep, Mr Chemistry. While other kids were modelling their looks on The New Romantics or heavy metal bands, I was slowly morphing into a teacher. Alarm bells really should have been ringing.

The more I think about this the more I realise just how dire and far-reaching the consequences of all this masking has been. I am not sure if I have a personality of my own. I seem to be an assemblage of other people’s characteristics, a hybrid human.

Let’s stop and take stock. I have clearly been masking my entire life, to the point that I don’t know who I am. So I suppose that the next question is how do I stop?

How do I get my Maskenectomy?

“Horror is the removal of masks”

Robert Block – the writer of ‘Psycho’

One of the fears I had after I was diagnosed was of my mask slipping. “Given that I don’t know who I am, how can I possibly show my real self to the world?”, I would tell myself, “What if I am simply too weird?” What I really meant was, what if I am truly unacceptable? I had horrific visions of myself regressing into some non-verbal state. What if that unmasking really was a horror show?

Given that I don’t know how much of my face is synthesised latex and how much is real, I haven’t had much success in removing any masks. Although, I have made some small steps to becoming a more authentic, autistic me.

I have found myself enjoying scatting type vocalisations more. Scatting is a type of improvisation; vocal sounds are used to accompany a musical riff, especially in jazz. For me it’s like a weird form of echolalia. Echolalia is when someone on the spectrum repeats words or phrases out of context and with no intention to communicate. My version doesn’t involve language as such, only what you might call ‘sound-shapes’. I enjoy making up demented phrase like Louis Armstrong on speed: “Sheebab shebangabanga shim sham shoo” That’s a short one! They make no sense but they seem to reduce my anxiety, like a sonic form of stimming.

Stimming, often described a self stimulatory behaviour, is any activity someone with ASD engages in to regulate their nervous system. I have also noticed my leg shaking taken on Elvis Presley proportions and my pen clicking is getting completely out of hand.

The stimming and scatting have increased unconsciously. Talking to myself more was a conscious decision however. I gave myself permission to do it when necessary, although this is still mainly when no one is around.

As you can see, so far I have been unable to do any more than peek under the latex surface. Will I ever get my maskenectomy? I honestly don’t know?

I have been on a long journey. Writing this post has made me realise how long I have left to go. Still, I hope that I’ve managed to shed a little light on masking, for you as well as myself. Writing about it was much harder and took much longer than I thought it would. It was painful but also revealing. It unearthed some trauma that I will have to deal with away from the blog. Yet, a dark corner of my world is a little lighter and a bit more in focus.

Please feel free to share your relationship with masking, whether as a wearer or an observer.

Expectations: Great, Small and Manageable

Before I get into the meat of my blog I wanted to quickly lay out my expectations. A lifetime of depression should mean that my expectations are low right?

Yes and no. Due to my Asperger’s I do have unrealistic expectations of myself. I am a perfectionist and constitutionally incapable of giving anything less than one hundred percent. As you can imagine, that’s a one-way road to burn out. Once I’ve reached that cul-de-sac I have nothing left to give. This is something that I have been working on and hope to explore this more deeply here in the blog. So, my expectations of myself need managing. What about my expectations of others?

Others, you, as a group anyway, are an enigma to me. I have always struggled with the expectations of others. One good thing about starting a blog is that no one’s likely to read it for a while. That’s a manageable expectation. However, and I’m forcing myself here, I have to think positively. Someone, at one point, will. So you, whoever you are, will read it, and hopefully will want to know more. If this is you, thank you, I hope you find this blog useful. So, it’s your expectations I need to address next.

If you’ve read my ‘About’ page you’ll know that I am a full-time carer. Needless to say, but I’m going to anyway, I don’t have a lot of spare time. It would then, be foolish of me to commit to writing a blog post every week for example. On the other hand, I am an Aspie, so when I start writing I find it difficult to stop. Although life has no difficulty putting the boot in from time to time to make me stop. What does this mean for you? Expect this blog to be a bit chaotic.

I can promise you this, I will make more time to write. Being a carer often feels like you are a hostage to some else’s illness. There are things that you simply have to do. The good news is that you have some control over how you organise you’re day, well that’s good news for most people. I’ve become more aware lately just how bad my executive functioning skills (my ability to organise my self – another future blog post) have become. This is something else I am now working on.

Now that I am committed to writing these posts, I have lots of opportunities to experiment with new ways of being productive. As the blog progresses it would be great to hear from you, to connect, to learn.

So, here’s what you can expect. I will write as often as I can. I will be as honest as I can be. I will be as inclusive as I can.

In my next post, I will explore masking and it’s effect on mental health. I hope to see you there.

Why Mining for Light?

For me, the dark is, simultaneously, a source of comfort and pain. It sounds strange I know.

First a confession. I am a nyctophiliac:

No, I don’t have some obscene sexual predilection! I enjoy being in the dark. At times of stress, I positively crave it. The dark soothes me. Being alone in a dark, and preferably quiet, room helps me to reset myself. I, like many people on the autistic spectrum, have a sensitive nervous system. I regularly experience sensory and social overload. So, while lots of people may quip, ‘I need a lie down in a dark room’, I crave it. It’s a physiological and psychological necessity. The dark can also be a figurative refuge.

This is how being around other people often feels for an Aspie (someone who has Asperger Syndrome):

The social world seems chaotic, unpredictable and loaded with the threat of judgement. Over time, anxiety becomes an instinctive response. To avoid the painful glare of social interactions you hide in the shadows. However, being in the dark is lonely and painful.

It’s as if everyone else got the operator’s manual when they entered the world and mine got lost in the post. I have felt different to others since I was a child. For me, growing up in a working class housing estate in the nineteen-seventies, different meant other, loner, weirdo and freak. Different meant less than, and that’s how I felt.

You could say that darkness set in from an early age. Being incapable of sustaining anything but the most dysfunctional friendships, and being easily manipulated, convinced me that I must be stupid, even when there was evidence to the contrary. Pessimism became my default outlook. For as long as I can remember, I have experienced bouts of profound depression punctuated by a less intense version and accompanied by anxiety in varying intensities.

Imagine fifty years of that:

So, it’s fair to say that I have lived the majority of my life in the dark. Yet, I have always wielded a torch and a spade. I have so often tried to shine a light on my situation and worked tirelessly to explore ways to change it. Those explorations have lead me down many a mine shaft. Sometimes I have made it back to the surface with gold, sometimes with coal, often with calloused, empty hands. Undeterred, I have kept digging.

In this blog I will share with you what I have found and invite you to do the same. Then, maybe together, we can go mining for light.

What’s the point?

‘What’s the point?’, that question echoes in my mind so often lately that’s it’s become a depressing mantra. Here at least it is a positive question. Why blog? The answer to that surprisingly simply. Writing is therapeutic for me and I have something to say. Something I think others will benefit from hearing.

That’s not the only point of course. I hope that this blog will help connect me to you. If I can manage to do that, then I can learn from you, we can learn from each other. Having a neurodevelopmental disorder like autism and being a full-time carer means that I don’t connect with others much in the ‘real’ world. My life is too compressed. Here, through the magic of textual language and the internet, I hope to become more connected.

Another motivation for writing this blog is to have a creative and expressive outlet. This is something that I have allowed to drift. I have allowed my caring commitments to overwhelm me for too long, a situation intensified by the onset of the COVID-19 situation. I could simply put words in front of each other in a private journal but most probably they would coalesce into a rant or whine, or something equally unproductive.

That’s not to say that journaling has no value. I am in the middle of an experiment with positive journaling that has already begun to bear fruit. Future posts will feature this. Here, I want to connect and learn and explore. I have let those precious gifts slide, so it’s now time to put them on a firmer footing. If I am doing those things for you as well as me then they have more value, and I’m more likely to remain motivated to do them.

I have assumed nothing about you. You may have autism, ADHD, or be neurodivergent in some other way. You may have anxiety, depression, or some other mental health problem. You may be a carer. I suppose you may even be a mental health professional, or simply a voyeur of other ‘worlds’. Whatever brings you here, I hope that you find something of interest, something of use. If you have something to share then please do. If you have ever spend time in the dark then this blog is for you.

So, what’s the point?

  • To write
  • To share
  • To connect
  • To learn
  • To explore

In the next post, I’ll explain a little about the title of the blog and it’s significance.

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