The Old New Year’s Resolutions

HAPPY NEW YEAR!! I hope you have all had a lovely, relaxing holiday period and that you feel hopeful about the year ahead. I’m feeling lighter than I have in a long time and for the first time in months, I’m actually excited about what’s coming next.

But, before we move on to the new year and all the new plans, I want to pause for a moment. This time last year, I set several resolutions – more like goals – for 2018. Now, 365 days later, I want to look back at them and look at how I did, whether I achieved them or not…

WRITE MORE SONGS – Technically, yes. I did write more songs. Not as many as I would’ve liked but more songs nonetheless. As I mentioned in my review of 2018, my depression seemed to completely suppress my creative brain so writing anything was a really struggle. But I’m cautiously optimistic about my songwriting in the near future.

RELEASE MUSIC – Yes, as I said in my halfway-through-the-year post, I have music out in the world (you can listen to my first single, ‘Invisible,’ here). It was a long, hard journey to that first milestone but we made it and I’m excited about what’s coming next.

FIND THE RIGHT MEDICATION – I found many wrong ones but, fingers crossed, I’m onto a good one. Right now, we just have to wait and see (my least favourite sentence in the world).

WORK ON BEING HEALTHIER – I feel really good about this one. Since August, I’ve been going to the gym and swimming for at least half an hour most days of the week and I’ve kept it up for six months. I’m so proud of myself and I love it so much. It helps me make sense of the world and it makes me feel really good. Food is still a daily struggle but I’m not restricting and I’m also not eating everything in sight. So that’s something.

BECOME MORE INDEPENDENT – I feel like I’m going backwards with this one. My depression has been all consuming and just as it started to let up, anxiety rushed in to fill the void. So I’m struggling here. I don’t know what else to say about this one.

READ MORE BOOKS – Yes! I definitely did that! My small, achievable goal was five books and I managed to read ten! So I’m very proud of my efforts in this department. Hopefully I can keep this up going forward.

IMPROVE MY MUSICAL SKILLS – This is another casualty of my depression. My lack of concentration and motivation has just made it impossible to do any consistent practice. Even when I tried my hardest, I couldn’t do it and then I’m really good at beating myself up over it. That’s another thing I need to work on. But as I’ve already said, I’m cautiously optimistic about things moving forward.

GO THROUGH MY POSSESSIONS – Well, I did that. We moved house and so I went through everything as I packed it. That was very overwhelming so I’m sure I missed stuff. I’m still creating a new order and finding things that I can throw out or give away but I made a huge dent in this resolution and I’m pleased with my effort.

So I guess it is now time to make some new resolutions. Watch this space…

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“Is Autism A Gift?” (At New Scientist Live)

A while back, my brother told me about an upcoming talk called ‘Is Autism A Gift?’ Naturally, I was curious. And slightly sceptical. For me, Autism has been one struggle after another but I’m aware that that is likely due to the late diagnosis rather than the actual Autism. But who knows. So I was really intrigued as to what the talk would be like.

The talk was part of New Scientist Live, which is a huge event – a festival, really – all about “ideas and discoveries for everyone curious about science and why it matters.” I couldn’t describe it better than they do. It’s full of stalls, interactive experiences, and stages for talks on all different subjects. Had I not had previous engagements on the other three days of it, I would’ve loved to stay longer and explore more. I was almost giddy with all the potential for learning.

The speaker was Dr Anna Remington, the director of UCL’s Centre for Research in Autism and Education and a leading authority in the area of superior abilities in Autism. And she had me from the beginning: she asked how many people were autistic or had a personal connection to Autism, almost the entire audience put their hands up, and she said, “I personally feel that you are the experts.” She was warm and enthusiastic, the perfect combination of fascinated and respectful. I liked her straight away.

She started off with a brief outline of Autism, of the social aspects (struggling with non-literal language, eye contact, managing relationships) and the non-social aspects (the need for routine, areas of intense interest, sensory sensitivities). She also talked about the language around it, about using ‘autistic people’ rather than ‘someone with Autism,’ because so many people feels that it’s so intrinsic to their identity. She quoted someone she’d worked with: “You can’t separate the autism from me. It’s not something I carry around in a bag with me, it’s something that’s absolutely part of my personality and identity.”

She said that so many talks are about the difficulties of Autism but that she wanted to talk about some of the positives, not the savants but the areas where autistic people are shown to excel. She walked us through some studies – some visual tasks and some auditory, done with both children and adults – and showed us how the groups with autistic people did significantly better.

She introduced the idea of ‘perceptual capacity’: “The amount that we can process at any given time is known as our perceptual capacity. Everybody has a slightly different perceptual capacity and whether we process something depends on whether our capacity is full up or if there’s still room left over… Now the crucial thing is that we have to assign our whole capacity at any given time. You can’t assign just part of it. So, if the task that you’re doing doesn’t fill up the whole of your perceptual capacity, then anything that’s left over will automatically process something irrelevant around you.”

I found this whole concept fascinating. This is the idea behind why people listen to music while working or doodle while talking on the phone, filling in that left over capacity with information that doesn’t interfere with what you’re trying to do. I have always had stuff playing in the background (audiobooks, movies, TV shows – not music because I get distracted by thinking about the mechanics of the song and of the lyrics) and was always told that I couldn’t possibly do whatever I was doing well with that much ‘distraction.’ So it was very satisfying to know that I’d been right all along. If you want to know more about this, this article is very helpful.

She finished with why this research, why these findings, matter and how they can be applied in education and employment to improve the experience and opportunities for autistic people. The research is really exciting and I would love to be involved in some way; as I mentioned in my post about taking part in Autism research studies (here), there’s something really empowering about it, about feeling part of change. I spoke to her about it after the talk and she was absolutely lovely.

My one negative about it all was the level of background noise, this constant drone of indistinguishable voices. It made it difficult to hear the talk and it’s one of the things that I’ve found really drains my energy. But, although it completely wore me out, it was so worth it. It was such a positive experience and I’m looking forward to seeing where this research leads.

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Autism’s Got Talent

A few weeks ago now, I got to perform at Autism’s Got Talent, a showcase for autistic people put on by the charity, Anna Kennedy Online. The show took place at The Mermaid Theatre in London and saw about twenty different acts perform, from music to dance to magic. It was a surprising, rewarding, and fun experience so I thought I’d write a little something about it.

I really wasn’t sure what to expect. Despite getting my diagnosis nearly three years ago, it’s only recently that I’ve started to attend events for people with Autism. It took me a long time to figure out what my diagnosis meant to me and I needed some time to find steady ground before I felt comfortable to… I guess, ‘publically identify’ as autistic, if that makes sense.  So I’ve only been to a few events like this and I’ve honestly been blown away by how kind everyone is. Everyone working the show was patient and engaged and that made such a difference to the whole atmosphere; it made it a lot less stressful. As a performer, I’ve never been treated badly because of my Autism but I have felt like it’s an inconvenience, that I’m being difficult for struggling with certain things. But at this event, the things that are usually considered adjustments were already built in: there was a room specifically allocated for quiet time; the instructions and explanations were really clear; there was a meet and greet the day before (with some admin stuff) so that everyone had time to get used to everything; they had a fantastic team there to help all of the performers manage the day, all of whom only had two acts to look after; and if anyone was getting stressed, they did an excellent job of remaining calm and composed. These things made for such a supportive environment before and during the show and made the whole thing such a pleasure to be a part of.

The day of the show was a long one. We had a tour of the venue so we knew where everything was and then we got started on the sound check. Despite the long list of performers, I didn’t feel rushed at all: we were encouraged to take our time and get comfortable. Having gigged quite a lot in the last few years, I’m used to doing everything at breakneck speed (only to wait for ages for something else usually) and while I can cope with it, not having to was a real gift. I really appreciated that.

An interesting opportunity I hadn’t foreseen was the chance to be interviewed, about my experience of the show and my experience of Autism. As I’ve said, I’m still making sense of how Autism fits into my identity so that was a bit nerve-wracking, but apart from my constant fear that I’m embarrassing myself, it went okay. And it felt positive – and empowering – to talk about the way I experience the world.

Another thing that really helped was having people I knew with me. I had Richard – my cowriter, guitar player, friend, and general partner in crime – there as he was playing guitar for me but almost everyone had a family member there too and that was really nice. Again, I can cope with being by myself but having people there who know me, who know my anxieties and how to handle them, made the day much more manageable and enjoyable.

The sound check had been well organised so most of us were done by lunchtime. I ran out to do a few things and then had a couple of hours to chill and gather my energy. I definitely needed that. And then, all of sudden, it was time to get back to the theatre, take photos, and go to the green room.

I missed a lot of the first half because I had to be in the green room in preparation for getting on stage for my performance and, although I was sad to miss the performances, I got to hang out with some seriously lovely people that I hope to stay friends with. Obviously being autistic doesn’t automatically make all autistic people compatible friends but there is something pretty magical about meeting people who understand parts of you that others just don’t, naturally and without having to try (I want to write something more in-depth about autistic friends vs. non-autistic friends because I think there’s space for an interesting debate about whether it matters or not, but I did just want to point out the special-ness of having a natural connection with someone that doesn’t require either person to be anything but who they are). We laughed a lot, shared photos of our pets, and sang the Friends theme tune. As much as I love performing, I think that may be my favourite part of the experience!

When it came my turn to perform, we had a technical malfunction: the microphone didn’t work. That’s always a fun way to start a performance… It happens; it was fine. In all seriousness: I’m not fazed by performing anymore. I get nervous and restless before a show but I’ve done it enough that it doesn’t really impact my functioning or my ability to perform; I can be anxious and still handle anything thrown at me (such as equipment failure…) without falling apart. We switched out the microphone and started again. All good. The performance was so much fun (even though ‘Invisible’ is a sad song) and it was really special to play for an audience that was so genuinely supportive of the performers. If you’re reading this and you were there, you guys were wonderful! I also got to mention this blog before leaving the stage, which was cool.

In the interval, something really special happened. A number of people came up to me and told me how ‘Invisible,’ resonated with them or how they wanted to find my blog because they thought it would help someone they knew. The idea that something I’ve done – little old me – could have an impact on someone is so incredible and magical and special to me. All I want to do is create things and help people, and create things that help people. So those interactions are amazing to me. Does that make sense?

It was a really, really special show and there were some amazing performers. I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to be a part of it. I’m still struggling with my words, as I have been for a while now, but thank you to everyone involved and everyone who came to and supported the show. It means the world to me and I know it means the world to everyone else who performed.