Hello, and welcome back to The Autistic Writer.
This is the second instalment of the blog, and if you’re reading this, I guess I have to be happy I didn’t put you off first time round!
It’s been a difficult week for me on a personal level, as almost everything has been overshadowed by a mental health crisis I suffered a few days ago. Despite it being a tough week, there have been some positives. I’ve got updates on my progress with my novel, Aberrations, and some discussion around my own autistic struggles, and autism generally.
The Aut Life
The term autistic meltdown is somewhat problematic, and I will discuss that issue in a future article. But for now, I hope most people will have a rough idea of what I’m getting at when I say I had an autistic meltdown a few days ago What happened? Well, the trigger was an event that I had no control over, but which affected me deeply. My initial reaction was a highly emotional episode of anxiety. This was extreme enough for me to request medical help. A prescription medicine helped bring down the anxiety to a manageable level. The panic was then supplanted by a period of depression, which still continues. This pattern is all too familiar to me.
I’m taking some heart from the fact that I have not completely buckled under this episode. Why have I been stronger than when this type of thing has happened in the past? Partly, it is down to my slowly developing understanding of how autism drives my emotional and mental state. And partly it is due to some decisions I made a while ago.
I understand that my mental wellbeing is linked to the things I do. If I feel good, I tend to do things that I know are good and right things to do – taking exercise for example. In the weeks before this recent episode, I had been feeling low and depressed and unhappy with myself. As a result, I had been neglecting myself; not being physically active, not writing, not really reading more than a page or two a day, and drinking too much alcohol. I spotted the signs of the slippery slope into despair. I knew a lot of my unhappiness was due to feeling like I just didn’t fit into the world; I was the wrong shaped jigsaw piece. So I made a decision that I was literally going to force myself to do things I know I should be doing, and see if this would improve my mental state; reversing the chain of feelgood causality, if you like. This method will be familiar to anyone who has encountered cognitive behavioural therapy.
I made a decision to get away from my desk or sofa and walk for an hour a day. I made a decision to write every day. I made a decision to read every single day. These are activities that I count as being the most natural things in the world for me to do, and yet because my mental health had been struggling, I had been remiss. So I started to track these modest activities in a simple journal, along with tracking how my mental state reacted. Overall, it has been successful, so that even after my recent crisis, I managed to continue reading, writing and walking; three small daily victories that have quite literally kept me functioning as a human being. I would be lying if I said I feel great. Far from it. But I am getting out of bed every day, and at least doing something.
The activities I have set for myself have come to feel like gentle, encouraging targets. I feel incredibly empowered knowing that even in the depths of what I can accurately call the despair of recent days, I have kept going.
Walking has been amazing. I live in the city of Sheffield, which has parks and green spaces almost everywhere you look. To be in the fresh air, sun (or rain) on your face, and just walking with a good audiobook piping into your ears is great.
Happily, my lust for reading has returned, which is essential for any writer.
My reading since the last blog post
Bowie: The Illustrated Story by Pat Gilbert (hardback) 5/5
Death of Kings by Bernard Cornwell (Book 6 of the Saxon Series) (kindle) 5/5
Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre (audible) 5/5
Started and finished:
The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer by Jennifer Lynch (paperback) 4/5
Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and How to Think Smarter About People Who Think Differently by Steve Silberman (audible)
The Secret History of Twin Peaks by Mark Frost (hardback)
What If: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe (kindle)
As you can see, I’ve indulged my nerdy interest in the cult TV show, Twin Peaks. I’ve been meaning to read The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer for years. It is a disturbing read, in line with the grim subject matter, but worth the effort. Mark Frost’s The Secret History of Twin Peaks is a beautifully produced hardback, filled with stunning visuals to accompany a narrative that so far has been absorbing.
I’m about a quarter of the way into Neurotribes, and it reduced me to tears when the narrative turned to the plight of autistic children in Nazi Germany. I’ll do a full review of the book on this blog at a later date.
Reading, as I have mentioned, is essential for any writer. Not only does the process of reading give you the opportunity to assess and learn from the ability and technique of other writers, but it directs your mind to new ideas, and keeps you fresh. Without input, the writer’s output stagnates. At present, as I work on my next novel, Aberrations, I am pleased to say I am not stagnating.
In light of how I’ve felt this week, I have to be happy with the progress on my novel. Over the last seven days, I’ve written 6,429 words.
I’ve reached a pivotal point in the plot where several characters discover information, and take irrevocable actions, at more or less the same time as each other. The whole story turns here. I knew all this in advance, as I had each step of the plot planned before I laid down one word of this first draft. Nevertheless, it has become the most challenging part of the book to write so far. I know what the characters are doing, I know why they are doing it, I know how they feel, what has got them to this point, and what will happen next. The challenge for me is to write this in a way that will be both believable and readable. The pace and narrative flow are so important right now. Part of getting this right has involved merging two chapters, and reversing the order of two other chapters, so I ended up with a completed chapter 27, even though I hadn’t written up chapter 26. This did not sit well with my autistic preferences. I have a very strict process when it comes to my writing, and I get uncomfortable when I have to employ flexibility. But I always know those times will come; when I have to left the craft take precedence over my somewhat rigid drive. It’s a pain I put myself through in search of getting the best, most gripping story I can create.
Aberrations is a paranormal thriller, and it overlaps significantly with my last novel Abominations without being a direct sequel. You can find Abominations here.
The Aut Files
It occurs to me that some of you might be reading the blog out of interest in my writing, and might not be overly familiar with autism. I am still learning about autism myself as it has been mere months since my diagnosis, and in all honestly for a while after the diagnosis I just put my head deep in the sand. I now want to gain a greater understanding of my condition – partly to be able to understand my past difficulties in the proper context but also, hopefully, to be able to manage my mental health more effectively in future. Part of the purpose of this blog is to inform as I learn, because one thing I am certain of is there is a huge amount of misunderstanding and misinformation about autism out there. A world of books have been written on the subject, but here in this blog, I’m just going to tackle one small element of it as a time. Fittingly, I’ll start with…
What is Autism?
According to the National Autistic Society, autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how people communicate and interact with the world. The organisation estimates there are around 700,000 people in the UK alone who are autistic.
In a similar vein, the NHS explains that autistic people may find it difficult to communicate and interact with other people. They may suffer sensitivity to bright lights or noises, may feel uncomfortable in social situations, and struggle with unexpected changes to plans. They may take longer to understand some information. This doesn’t sound too bad, does it? A bit of discomfort, a bit of social anxiety, and so on. Here lies part of the problem in answering the question what is autism. The words, while accurate enough, don’t really do the condition justice. And if you have ever seen an autistic person absolutely helpless with distress, or listened to an autistic person talk about how they have contemplated taking their own lives, or spoken to a parent of an autistic child absolutely desperate for some help, you’ll know it’s not always as simple as the brief verbal summaries of the condition.
The NHS says that no one knows what causes autism, or if it has a cause. I find this position over-cautious. It is known that autism can run in families, and research has suggested the cause is genetic. A study published in Nature Neuroscience concluded that the brains of autistic people work differently to those of neuro-typical. I’m not going to go into details of the science and cite lots of sources in this particular post, because this is a blog not an academic paper. But in future posts, I will look a little more closely at the science.
What I can say is that it is clear that some things do not cause autism – for example, MMR vaccinations, or diet, or infections. Autism is not infectious.
For the briefest of brief introductions to autism then, I think it is helpful to focus on the following:
- Autistic people’s brains work differently to other people’s.
- The condition is a disability.
- Autistic people do struggle to cope with aspects of life that other people find completely normal.
- Most autistic people do not have autistic superpowers, like Dustin Hoffman’s Rain Man character, Raymond Babbit.
- Autistic people do have emotions, and a sense of humour, and can love like anyone else.
- Autism is a spectrum. The term spectrum is badly misunderstood in this context, and I will talk about it in detail next week – but for now, just know that every autistic person has a different type of autism. It is as unique as a fingerprint.
Thank you for reading. I’ll see you next week.