Short Story – Friends Like These

Note: This fictional story is a departure from my usual content in that it is not related to my ASD. I have aspirations of becoming an author/novel editor, and so I plan to use this blog to upload some of my creative writing in addition to my usual posts. This short story does form part of a wider fantasy narrative I’ve constructed, but still functions as a stand-alone. I would welcome any comments and feedback!

Friends Like These

I still have no idea how Wilbur managed to get us those jobs, working as servants for the wealthiest guy in the area. William Rainier was an unknown; a dark horse millionaire, appearing one day having just bought a string of three-story properties on the main street. But now, as we walked down the street in our stiff-collared uniforms, Wilbur’s still always somehow neater than mine, fitting him better where mine hung loose, I supposed I should be grateful for Wilbur’s knack for talking his way into things. The pay was good: we could afford decent food for the first time in a while. We had modest accommodation now. It beat being on the streets, and the risky business of pickpocketing. 

Of course, it still wasn’t enough for Wilbur. Nothing was ever enough for Wilbur. 

It had been six months now, since Wilbur had begun skimming just a little cash off the top of Rainier’s accounts each month. Being the smart one, he had access to those kinds of things, and made himself (and me) a sneaky little allowance. He’d revealed it to me, one night, almost by accident. With a cigarette in one hand and a bottle in the other, he’d confided in me in a smug, laughing whisper. I shouldn’t have been shocked, but I was – I told him to stop. We’d had an argument. He’d said that he would stop; I’d promised I wouldn’t tell. I thought that would be it. 

Two weeks later though, Wilbur proposed that we make a break for it. 

In hushed whispers, standing outside the estate under the dirty blackish-blue sky, he had eagerly explained his plan. While he spoke, I’d watched the patterns illustrated by the glowing red end of his cigarette, tendrils of smoke curling and twisting like snakes. Rainier kept a key to the vault on his person at all times. When out at the market, we would both attack him. Wilbur would grab the key. We would go back to the house before anyone realised that Rainier was gone, open the vault, steal as much as we could, and then make a break for it. 

Freedom. It smelled so good you could taste it, at least that was what Wilbur said. I’d never had freedom – I’d been born between the lines of this city, in the cracks, crawling my way up to reach the daylight, always under somebody else’s boot. But Wilbur knew what freedom was. These service jobs weren’t good enough, he said. They were well-paid enough to exist upon, sure, we could start savings, but we’d never earn enough to get us out of the city. That was all that he wanted – to get out. To go home. Wilbur came from the countryside, and in this rusty, smog-filled city, he clung to those memories, clutching them close to his chest like a sinner holds prayer beads. Often, while I listened, he would reminisce, lying in bed staring at the ceiling, of green-blanketed fields, of warm, buzzing breezes and wide open space. Wilbur talked about it like a man intoxicated – he was high off the idea of freedom. He wanted it more than anything. I wanted freedom because Wilbur wanted it. He made it sound thrilling, blissful – and now, he claimed, it was within our reach!

But the plan was insane. I told him so. He didn’t like that. A heated exchange of words, voices barely kept below shouting; a bottle smashed, and he stalked out into the night. When he got back, well past midnight, he sat down on his bunk, running a hand through his smoke-smelling hair. I pretended to be asleep. That didn’t seem to matter to him. “Tomorrow, Tommy,” he said. “Tomorrow, you’ll have to choose. You’ll come with me, you know you will. We’re brothers, aren’t we?”

I didn’t answer him, nor did I sleep well that night. The next morning, walking beside Rainier, heading to the market, I reflected that Rainier treated us well. If he wasn’t kind, with his cold, stern tone, at least he wasn’t cruel. He maintained an air of civility, always coolly composed with all of his servants. He had given us this chance, and I didn’t want to betray him. In a foolish way, I guess I looked up to him: he was fair. You couldn’t say that about a lot of the other people I’d worked for. If there was anyone who deserved to be robbed, it wasn’t Rainier.

And if we were caught…

Wilbur knew that he couldn’t do it without me, and he knew that I knew this. Wilbur had his tricks, but Rainier was a trained fighter. He carried a sword, and on several occasions we’d witnessed him spar. He was not a man to be messed with. Even with the element of surprise, it would be difficult to overpower him – it would take the both of us. 

Rainier sent Wilbur on an errand, and Wilbur gave me a stern look before he vanished into the crowd.  Trying to keep the conspiracy from my face, I walked on with Rainier for a while. The market was busy, humming with people. Everyone muttered and grumbled and shouted and chuckled and murmured – irregular spasms of noise occasionally breaking through but always lost in the tide of the noise. Then there was Rainier, stoically striding through it all. While others dallied and speculated between different stalls, Rainier marched directly between them, never distracted, always solemn and reserved in his tight-fitting blue coat. Was that how you got to the top? I wondered.

Wilbur stepped out of the crowd, approaching us with a carefully neutral expression. Dread turned in my stomach. Rejoining Rainier’s side, lingering just slightly behind him, he shot a look in my direction. We turned down into an alley, the bright sunlight interrupted sharply. Walls loomed close on either side. My mouth turned dry. 

I shook my head. 

Something terrifying flashed into Wilbur’s eyes. Then, to my horror, his expression turned resolute, fixing his gaze on Rainier’s back. He couldn’t do it without me – but I had underestimated his determination. I had never tasted freedom, I didn’t know how strong its pull was. An instant too late, I realised what Wilbur was about to do. 

Wilbur leapt at Rainier, a knife materialising in his hand. But somehow, as though by some sixth sense, Rainier turned. Impossibly fast, Rainier’s arm came up to block the knife, catching the blade on his gauntlet instead of his throat. Immediately, Rainier threw a punch to Wilbur’s stomach, doubling him over. But Wilbur was quick, and dropped to a crouch, one leg sweeping round to knock Rainier’s feet from under him. Rainier fell, but rolled, and was back on his feet in a moment. He seized Wilbur’s wrist, twisting hard. The knife clattered to the dusty floor; Wilbur was shoved back against the wall.

I didn’t help him. Wilbur saw me standing there, frozen, and I saw the light leave his eyes. Momentarily, he looked as though he would defy it, but then it was quite clear he gave up. In a shameful instant, the fight was over, and Wilbur was on the floor, half-sitting with his back to the wall, blood running from his nose and the back of his head. Rainier stood with his sword drawn, tip pointed at Wilbur’s chest, breathing hard, but more from shock than exertion.

I stood staring. My brain felt full of cotton. It was horribly, horribly real.

Rainier was shouting now. Wilbur took it on the chin, eyes down, looking blankly at the blade just touching his chest, hardly even flinching as Rainier berated him. His autumn-brown eyes were dead cold, his shoulders hunched. Eventually he raised his eyes, but instead of Rainier, he looked at me. I felt his disappointment like a weight settling in the pit of my stomach.

Police arrived promptly, and Wilbur was dragged off the floor. His head hung, the emotion in his eyes lost in the shadow of his fringe. They grabbed hold of his arms, his shirt, and he hung between several of them, looking like a dead man, betrayed.

I felt a terrible shame.

Rainier turned on me. Paralysed, I stared back at him. His face was flushed, outrage gleamed in his eyes. 

“Were you involved in this, Tommy?” He demanded, brandishing his sword. Jolted out of my stupor, I recoiled from the blade being thrust towards me. The other soldiers turned towards me too. I raised my hands, opened my mouth to speak. But the words died on my tongue, drying up in my mouth. 

Wilbur’s head rose to look at me, urgently staring. His eyes begged me to talk. I couldn’t. Wilbur would be put to death for this. My own brother.

The soldiers moved towards me. My silence was a confession of my guilt.  “Seize him,” Rainier said, white-hot rage turning to cold betrayal in his voice. The soldiers closed in. 

Suddenly Wilbur erupted into violent motion, thrashing furiously.

“Tommy, run!” He yelled. There was a tremendous flash of white light. Momentarily blinded, I staggered backwards, one arm shielding my eyes, blinking away spots. Of their own accord, my feet carried me towards the other end of the alley. I dodged one man, who leapt at me. I heard shouts in my wake – cries of alarm – “He’s a light-twister!”

I didn’t dare glance back. As I reached the end of the alley, bursting out into daylight again, I sensed someone on my heels. I ran faster, charging towards the main clearing. People jumped out of my way, and when they didn’t I slammed into them, pushing and shoving a path for myself, carving a desperate escape. Still, there was someone behind me. 

I glanced back, and stumbled as relief washed over me.

“Keep running!” Wilbur shouted, barely a second behind. We streaked through the market, barreling through stalls, toppling crates and vaulting tables. I was fast, but Wilbur was faster, quickly outstripping me. He crashed through a stack of crates that blocked our path, and I chased desperately after him. I heard the shouts of soldiers behind us, Rainier’s furious commands.

Breathless, I suddenly found my voice, and spat abuse in Wilbur’s direction. My words ran away with me, hitting him in the back.

“You bastard! What the hell did you have to go and do that for?”

“Shut up and run!” Wilbur retorted. 

My anger wasn’t diminished. I ran even faster, catching up to him, almost overtaking as we reached the edge of the market.

Wilbur suddenly grabbed my arm, jerking me backwards into an alcove in the wall, my momentum sending me slamming against the stone. 

“Ow!” I cried. In an instant, Wilbur’s hand clamped over my mouth. His face inches from mine, his wide eyes swivelled left to right, pressing back into the shadow of the stone. 

“The money’s inside my book, in a secret compartment under my trunk,” he relayed hastily, just as out of breath as I was. Shouts erupted from somewhere just a few metres behind us, and we both jumped. I pulled Wilbur’s hand away from my mouth.

“How could you do this!” I hissed, trembling. He glanced back at me, and something threatening darted across his face, fleeting, like a glimpse of an animal through a hedgerow. A twitch of his jaw, the subtle narrowing of his eyes.

I felt a surge of fear as the realisation of his concealed anger hit me. Wilbur was furious. Actually furious. His fists clenched at his sides. He wanted to hurt me.

Then he pulled us both out of the alcove, shoved me forward, and took off in the other direction. 

I watched his brown coat vanish into the crowd, then I ran. Weaving down bystreets, I had been running for maybe thirty seconds when all of a sudden, a gunshot rang out somewhere behind me. 

I froze in my tracks.

A short, harsh cry of pain stood out an instant before it was overtaken by the alarmed cries of market-goers. Wilbur.

I stood in the middle of a street, staring down at the cobbles beneath my feet. The world seemed to stop. I was hyperventilating, could feel tears leaking from my eyes. For far too long, I stood there, trembling.  I saw it in my mind. Wilbur’s retreating coat tails, the bullet ripping right through him. No, it couldn’t be. 

I glanced back – seeing only the empty street behind me. Go back, I thought. Go back and find him

I turned away again, and forced myself to keep going; to run away down the street without looking back. 

Surviving a Cambridge Residential – Tips for managing autism and anxiety.

Recently I had the privilege of going on a two day, overnight residential visit to Trinity Hall College at Cambridge University, organised by my sixth form. When I received the letter informing me that I had a chance to go, I was both excited and nervous. On one hand, it was undeniably a great opportunity – a chance to go to one of the most famous universities, potentially somewhere I might apply to in future. On the other hand, it was an overnight stay in an unfamiliar place 4 hours away from home with unfamiliar people. In other words, an anxiety-inducing nightmare of a prospect, especially with me being autistic.

And yet, here I am. I survived! So here’s some of the strategies which I used to manage my autism on this trip, which helped me, and which will also hopefully help you, to not only survive the trip (or similar situations), but to come out the other side feeling so much more confident and capable in taking on new opportunities going forward. I’ll also be giving a run down of what happened on my trip, for any of those interested in what university residentials are like.

I learned about the Cambridge trip’s existence on quite a short notice (barely a week ahead of time) and although this meant I was a bit stressed – being autistic, I don’t like surprise changes to my routine – I’m also inclined to believe that it was partly a good thing because it meant that once I’d sent off my consent form, I didn’t have time to reconsider and back out. This is something worth considering if you are an anxious person like me – while it can be comforting to know about an experience a long time in advance, so you can prepare, hearing about it later may reduce the time you spend worrying about it. Figure out a balance which works for you for, and minimise unproductive anxiety.

In anticipation of the trip, I asked around, and something daunting quickly became apparent: although there were a few others from my school who I was acquainted with that were going, none of my friends were going on the trip. So, in preparation over the next few days, I set about just gradually getting to know some of the others who were coming on the trip, so I would have someone to talk to.

Tip 1: if you are worried about being alone, see if you can get to know others coming with you beforehand – it’ll give you someone to talk to, and hey, you might make a new friend!

Before the trip, I did a lot of information gathering about Cambridge. Normally, when I am going to go somewhere new, I will travel to the place with my family and we will ‘scout out’ the area, so that when I go there again I feel more comfortable. This was not possible for Cambridge, so instead I looked at google maps, getting a rough idea of the city and where we would be staying. I did some research about Trinity Hall, and I read and re-read the information that came with the letter to parents about the trip. From this, I knew that one of the things which I might have trouble with was sharing a bathroom, while staying in the dorms, so I spoke to my parents and we decided to send an email to the organisers of the trip asking if I could have a room that had an en suite bathroom. We also asked if my room could be close to the room of one of the people who I knew from my school. The organisers were very accommodating, and although I wasn’t able to get a bathroom, I would be close to one.

Tip 2: Make the most of the information you have about the trip, and do your own research to help you feel more comfortable. Email to ask questions and request accommodations beforehand that you feel could be helpful; remember to plan ahead, and think about what you might need.

When I got to the coach, I tried to look for people I knew, but couldn’t spot anyone immediately (the bus was about half-full). I sat down on my own in an available seat, next to the window, and put my bag on the seat next to me, so I kept the space free (the bus wasn’t full so there was space for this). Having that space made me feel a lot more comfortable, as I could stretch out a bit if I needed to.

Tip 3: If possible, and if you aren’t sitting near a friend, get space to yourself, especially if you are inclined to stimming or fidgeting. Having space also reduces some of the stimulation.

It was a four-and-a-half-hour coach journey on the way there. Predictably, the coach was quite loud, but I was prepared: I had my noise-cancelling headphones (which allow me to play music), with a spare charger in my bag just in case. I wore the headphones the whole way down, and didn’t really chat to anybody but that was fine by me.  

Tip 4: Bring whatever tools you would normally have with you, including backups. This could be stim toys, notepads etc. For me, this was noise-cancelling headphones, with backup earbud headphones and a portable charger.

When we stopped at the first service station after about two hours, everyone else got off the bus, but I decided to stay in my seat. The bus was quiet without anyone else on it, and I took my headphones off and read my book for twenty minutes while everyone else was in the services. A teacher noticed me as everyone else was getting off, and made sure I was alright, but thankfully she didn’t object to me staying on the coach, and I was left on my own for a bit. This was a good recovery time, to give my ears a rest as well. I didn’t need to use the services, and preferred the quiet time over stretching my legs, so I was quite happy.

Tip 5: You don’t always have to go along with everyone else. If there is something particular that you feel would benefit you, just check with a teacher.

When we got off the coach at Cambridge, I finally spotted the group from my school, walked with them to Trinity Hall, following the teacher, who pointed out the buildings and different colleges. Finally we settled in the lecture hall, which was to act as a base of operations, of sorts. I made sure to sit with my group, and for the whole of the first day I kept my headphones around my neck with my phone in my pocket in case I needed them. Throughout the day I also had my rucksack with me most of the time, and this was good because I knew that I had all the things that I might need, including food, so there was no anxiety associated with dealing with any needs in that respect. 

Tip 6: Have all your necessary things with you so you don’t have to worry about going back to get it. Feeling self-sufficient can ease anxiety about meeting your needs.

They gave us several maps detailing different aspects of Cambridge and of Trinity Hall specifically, and then we went for a proper tour of the college and parts of Cambridge. This really drove in how big the place was – Trinity Hall itself was almost the size of my secondary school, and it was just one of many colleges dotted all over the place. Luckily for us, it was a beautiful day, and Cambridge is a beautiful city. There were punts on the river Cam (although we’d all been thoroughly warned that we weren’t allowed to go on them), and we walked over several bridges. Cambridge looked to me like something out of a Pinterest board – almost fantastical in the grandiosity of its architecture, evocative of Hogwarts. All of the gardens were incredibly pretty too – neat lawns, and roses and wisteria climbing every wall.

Tip 7: Keep hold of your map

A sandwich lunch was provided in brown paper bags set out on a long table. I took mine, and went to sit outside with everyone else. Looking around, I saw some people I knew, sitting on the steps with a new girl who I didn’t know, and so I went over and sat near them. They included me in conversation, and they became my new group for the rest of the trip.

Tip 8: Don’t be afraid to just go and sit near people – chances are they will be happy to include you in conversation. 

Finally we got to check out our rooms. I found that I was in a downstairs room which was clearly designed for accessibility. The first thing I noticed was of course the automatic door, which acted as though possessed and which would not let you close it – it had to be allowed to close itself or it would resist shutting. This minor inconvenience was certainly worth the room though. My room, being the accessibility room, was pretty spacious (it was larger than most other people’s rooms) and had two sinks, and a kitchen unit with a fridge, microwave and kettle. There were shelves, a wardrobe, two mirrors, a single bed with storage underneath, and a desk in the corner. I had a large bay window with long curtains, though my view just looked out onto the courtyard where the music gallery stood. I was very pleased, and felt much more calm now that the big mystery of what our rooms would be like was solved.

By the time evening rolled around, I was starting to get stimming impulses – and I would consciously resist them. Being in a new place, surrounded by loads of new people, the masking instinct had overruled the stimming urge for most of the day, but as I felt myself getting more tired and overstimmed, there would just be this little nagging feeling to click my fingers – nothing distressing at that point, but just there.

Tip 9: don’t panic when you feel overstim starting to come on. Just be aware of how you are feeling, and know your limits.

After all the tours and talks were done, we were allowed to go out for the evening and explore Cambridge – no adult supervision. Myself and my new group of friends went out to Pizza Express for dinner, and some of my hand stims began, but they weren’t too noticeable, just hand-twisting and finger flexing. Nobody commented or seemed to notice, which was fine by me. It was very quiet at first, but when more people came into the restaurant, it got a lot noisier (the acoustics of the room also made it very echoey) and so the stims became a bit more prominent. But then we finished and left, and once it was quieter the stims calmed down.

Tip 10: Most people don’t notice stims if they are relatively subtle – don’t worry about being judged. I recommend bringing stim toys if you feel uncomfortable.

After dinner, we wanted to see the Airman’s bar which our teacher had told us about. We found the Eagle pub, and then loitered outside for a bit trying to figure out where exactly we had to go, peeking in through the open front door. In the end, we just walked in and went straight to the back, where we were promptly discovered by our teacher, who explained the story of the RAF bar. It was worth seeing – the scrawled names of the soldiers on the ceiling, noticeably so much older than the rest of the room. It was cramped and loud, but we were only in there briefly, and then we went out and bought ice cream (I had chocolate gelato – the best ice cream ever) Afterwards, one of my group suggested that we go to the park, so we did, and sat around chatting as it got dark.

We started heading back to Trinity Hall about twenty minutes before our curfew (9pm) – it was a ten minute walk or so. 

Then disaster struck. Just a few minutes away from the park, I felt my back pocket, and realised I didn’t have my room key. I stopped in the middle of the street, and got my group’s attention. I actually wasn’t freaking out too much – I was just frozen with indecision about what to do, and sort of couldn’t believe it was actually gone. One of my group made the decision for us, starting a sprint back to the park, but in the darkness, even with the aid of phone torches, we couldn’t find the keycard. I was frustrated, mostly irritated at myself for having lost it. There wasn’t time to check the whole of the park or retrace our steps, and it was night-time anyway. So we walked briskly (and I mean briskly) back to campus. My biggest worry was about getting into my room – all of my things were in there. What if they didn’t have a spare key card? I felt guilty as well – annoyed at my own carelessness in having lost it.

Tip 11: If things go wrong, don’t panic!

Our return to the front entrance coincided with that of our teacher. Shame-faced, I told her what had happened. She told me, not unkindly, that I would have to tell the porters. So we went into the porter’s lodge and awkwardly I explained what had happened, throwing in apologies at every chance I got. The porter was very decent about it, and after much rummaging through folders, conjured me a new one. Abashedly I walked back to the lecture theatre with my teacher, who was actually very sympathetic and reassuring. I was immensely grateful to her, and also to my friends for their attempts in helping me find it, and managed to mention it as we all walked back to our rooms after the briefing on tomorrow’s itinerary. They were all very good about it. 

Going to bed was interesting. Being near the staircase, I could hear everything that went on in the rooms and hallways next to and above me. Every time a door shut, you would hear it slam, and every time anyone used their keycard, the ‘beep-beep’ would be heard. The taps were audible and the hand-dryers were frequently set off in the bathrooms. Fortunately, most of the noise settled down by about 11pm, and it didn’t actually bother me too much. I thought to myself, it was the sort of thing that you could probably get used to. I listened to some more music, then plugged everything in to charge for the morning and went to sleep.

Tip 12: Take some time to unwind / down-stim if you need it. Make the most of alone times to down-stim and recharge.

The next day, we got to attend a taster lecture of our choosing. I chose to go to a law lecture, where I had a fantastic time with a really engaging teacher. It was genuinely fascinating, learning a new topic I hadn’t had a chance to before. Afterwards, me and a few other students continued a conversation with the teacher for almost half an hour, debating different legal situations. It was incredibly rewarding.

Tip 13: Ask questions! This one isn’t related to autism, but is generally just a great way of making the most out of experiences. Remember, you are there to learn, so ask all of the questions you can.

Overall, I hugely enjoyed this trip, and found it very helpful. And having the memory of this experience has made me feel a lot more confident in myself and my ability to handle new situations. After all, if I can handle going to Cambridge, I can handle going to the other places. I hope this will be helpful to others on the spectrum, and if you are interested in hearing more about my experiences and the advice that I would give for managing aspergers, please remember to like this post, and follow my blog to see upcoming posts.

Volunteering at West of England Falconry Centre

Florence, the Burrowing Owl, in her aviary. (During my second week, Florence decided to attack my shoelaces and succeeded in shredding tiny holes in the bottom of my trousers – thanks for that, Flo.)

Given that I am someone who has zero aspirations to go into veterinary sciences or to work with animals, it may seem slightly odd that I decided to volunteer at a falconry centre. But (generally) I do like animals and this seemed a reasonable opportunity to do some work experience. As an aspie, it initially seemed a daunting prospect, what with my social anxiety, but I’ve found that it’s been an incredibly supportive environment and has been incredibly enjoyable.

I was actually meant to do work experience at the centre for a week in August (my school runs an activities week at the end of the year and year eleven are advised to find work experience). I arranged mine through email (with a good deal of support and advice from my parents) – I had visited the falconry with my family on a number of occasions prior, and on one visit we enquired about work experience. Following that, I got in touch with the director Naomi through email, and it was arranged. Then COVID hit and cancelled the whole activities week. When I enquired about rescheduling, Naomi suggested that once I turned sixteen, I could volunteer there properly, and so I took up the offer.

So now, every Sunday, I volunteer at the West of England Falconry at Newton St Loe. 

On my first day, in the morning I was assigned to simply watching and listening, which I had expected, and which was fine by me. I was introduced to the other volunteers, and assigned to shadowing one volunteer, Beth, who was very friendly. I was shown how to prepare food for the birds and helped clean out a few aviaries.

Shadowing Beth was perfect for me, because I watched everything she did for several days before I began doing it myself, and then for several days after that I had her specifically watching over me, offering guidance and reassurance. Part of having aspergers means that I have very low self-confidence, and feel a lot better if I have someone I trust confirming that my actions are correct, so having Beth around was very helpful. There are also no stupid questions when you are new – I ask the same questions again and again, and they are answered. And it’s okay that I ask silly questions from time to time, because I know that what I am doing is important for the safety of the birds, so I can’t risk not asking the question and getting it wrong. It kind of defeats that anxiety about asking silly questions when you know that the harm in asking is always so much less than the potential harm in not asking. It helps you to get over that indecision. 

To my surprise, in the afternoon on my first day, Naomi took me out flying Neo, the centre’s common buzzard. I was given a hawking bag, a pot of food, and a glove, and we walked out to the fields. Naomi carried Neo on her fist as we walked out there. The thing about Naomi is that she gives good, clear instructions. She has to be firm and explicit, because you have to do certain things to make sure the bird is calm. She told me – ‘stand in front of me there so Neo can see you’. That’s a rule I can then follow so I know where to stand. She says ‘stand still’ or ‘go over there’ and I can follow her instructions; there’s no vagueness because it’s not about being polite or anything, it’s about what the bird needs. If the bird needs you to back off, you get told to back off, without any faffing about, and this bluntness is good for me because it doesn’t involve decoding any social cues. Flying Neo was a great experience. I followed Naomi’s instructions and immediately began learning about the personality of this young buzzard, who is actually a bit of a scaredy-cat – he gets nervous and skittish around lots of customers (me too, Neo).

When, after a few weeks, I was entrusted to mind the office and interact with customers, I was initially a bit nervous. Me, interacting with strangers? Unheard of. But Naomi talked me through how to do it – how to operate the card machine, where we kept the change, where to write down the takings etc. – and I watched and listened to Beth going through it several times. You always open with the same line, you see, – ‘Would you like to see some birds today?’ and then you follow the steps in response to that. I think because it’s quite formulaic, I was able to get on with it, and still feel safe and comfortable. I also think that because I had time to get accustomed to the environment (where things were in the office, etc.), and comfortable with the other volunteers around me, it made it easier to talk to customers. And in any case there was usually someone else nearby who was supporting me if I didn’t know the answer to something. 

I still prefer to just prep the food for the birds in the back or even to clean out aviaries, but I can interact with customers if needed, which is the important thing. I often mistakenly conflate ‘I don’t like doing X / I find X uncomfortable’ with ‘I can’t do X’ –  and it’s good to remember that they aren’t the same. (Recently I had a minor crisis where I was feeling bad because I couldn’t take the bus whereas other people my age could – I had to remind myself that yes I can take the bus – just because I find it difficult doesn’t mean that I can’t do it.) 

Sometimes when it gets busy and I want to keep myself from getting overstimulated, I will retreat to the back (of course I first make sure there is someone else to mind the office). I like the birds better than customers. With birds, and with animals in general, you don’t have to mask, and they don’t judge you for not making eye contact (note: just like with people, I also instinctively avoid eye contact with animals). Birds are especially good, because although they can be very loud, they usually make a consistent noise – so even when they are loud, they are still fairly predictable, and therefore they don’t unnerve me.

Also I think that when you’re with animals, most of your concentration is on that animal, especially when it’s a bird of prey. There’s no room in your brain for anything except how you are treating the bird, and so I find that it’s a good kind of mindfulness, a way to fill your head with something else for a while. There’s no room to be anxious or stressed about other things when you have a bird on your fist – the bird takes up all your attention, which is good for me. In a similar way to exercise, it provides a mental reset, a time to clear your head by filling it with one thing only. 

Overall, volunteering is incredibly rewarding, and I feel that it’s helped to build my resilience as well as self-confidence. Working in the falconry centre has been a good opportunity to make new friends and it’s fun to work with people you wouldn’t normally talk to – most of the volunteers are several years older than me, and so it’s been interesting and useful to hear about their experiences. After lockdown, it’s been enjoyable to meet new people again, to go through that process of introductions, getting to know them, and building friendships. Although the days still leave me feeling worn out from the amount of stimulation, it’s a satisfying feeling because I feel I have contributed to something, and so it’s definitely worth it. Above all, volunteering has given me an insight into a fascinating world – there’s a lot to learn in the art of falconry, and my favourite part has simply been finding out the personalities of the many birds of prey we have at the centre.

Retrospective on The Guilt Complex

I posted The Guilt Complex in 2018. Here we are now in 2021, and I believe that with my few years more experience of living and existing and all that nonsense, I’ve come to have a bit more insight about my own emotions.

First of all, for anyone who looked at that post and felt that they experienced a similar thing – let me tell you right now: it gets better. I don’t know how, I don’t know exactly why, but let’s just say that maturity seems to be this intangible thing where one day you realise that actually your worth doesn’t depend on your always being in the right.

Looking back now, I can see that when I made that post about feeling guilty, it was because my sense of self-worth was wrapped up in my perception of my own ‘goodness’: I felt that all of my value came from being a ‘good’ (which in my case meant ‘well-behaved’) person. Now, thank goodness, that has changed.

Let me tell you this: you don’t have to be ‘good’ to still have value as a person. It seems simple written out like that, but I think it’s a difficult thing to realise. At least for me, no amount of reassurance ever really made it sink in. I think that I had to hit a certain milestone in life experience before it clicked. You can preach all you like, be told and repeat all of those grand sayings: ‘everyone makes mistakes’, ‘it’s not worth worrying about’, ‘nobody’s perfect’ etc. I parroted those things myself – I even thought that I believed them. I realise now that I didn’t – not really. They just hadn’t sunk in. It takes time, until one day, very subtly, something just clicks.

And so one day, you wake up, and when you think about that embarrassing incident which always made you feel really guilty before, suddenly it doesn’t feel like that anymore. You find that somewhere along the line, between those late-nights where you stayed up cringing thinking about it, you’ve forgiven yourself. And it doesn’t hurt anymore, at all.

I believe that, among other things, is what maturity is. It’s a strange thing, really. It kind of sneaks up on you, and then suddenly you happen to look back and you realise that you have actually grown a lot as a person. Let me tell you, it’s a good feeling.

This got me thinking about a lot of other proverbs that we all like to quote, but which we might not actually be convinced of. Another of mine was ‘the world exists in shades of grey’ – with my style of black-and-white thinking, I was often told this. I thought that I understood it – once you decode the metaphor, it’s a simple enough concept: life and morality are nuanced. People are flawed, we are all human. Not everything can be a simple dichotomy between good and bad. The world is not black and white. I heard these statements, and really thought that I believed them. But I didn’t really – I don’t think I had the maturity yet at that point in my life. Maybe I’m not there yet even now, but there’s a hopeful optimism in knowing that things that affect you at certain parts of your life will not affect you forever. It seems obvious now, almost clichéd, but that’s the beauty of hindsight, I suppose: we all change and grow as people. That’s why I think it’s good to look back on things, even things like this blog, which has made me cringe a few times, because it lets you recognise your own patterns of thinking – a sort of reflective mindfulness, if you will – which is truly very valuable.

Look Who’s Back

Hey! I’m back! How is everybody? It’s been a while since I’ve touched this blog, frankly because I’ve been preoccupied just living. But I’m making a return to this blog with the renewed goal of continuing to share my experiences and advice for managing asperger’s syndrome.

From now on, you can look forward to (hopefully!) more regular posts. I plan to post at least once a month, so we’ll see how that goes.

I’m going to start by doing some retrospectives on my existing posts – honestly, re-reading through the thoughts of my eleven-year-old self has been quite a treat – and hopefully my newer, wiser self can provide some better insights. I also plan to record some of my experiences with volunteering, and my experience of a Cambridge University residential trip. And of course I’ll be doing lots of updates on strategies for how to cope at sixth form.

I’ll also be posting some content related to my own interests. For example, short stories I’ve written or thoughts on books that I’ve read; some of which will be explicitly related to my aspergers, some of which will just be my own opinions on things. I’ve found that being on the spectrum influences every part of my life, as I view everything through a neurodivergent lens, and so recording my reactions to things and the topics that come up in my own fiction has been useful for me in spotting patterns in how my aspie brain works, and I hope this may also be of interest to you.

Eye Contact

Why do you find it hard to make eye contact?

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It just feels wrong. I wouldn’t say that it scares me, because it’s nothing like that, it just doesn’t feel quite right and makes me uncomfortable. Most of the time I don’t even realise that I’m not looking at people’s eyes until either I think about it or until they comment on it. What I’ve noticed some aspies, (Chris Packham for instance) and myself doing, is that sometimes we consciously make an effort to maintain eye contact. We hold it for a few seconds, really trying to do it, then our eyes drop again, and we go back to looking around. In Chris Packham’s case, I watched him on TV, and watched the way his eyes moved. What I feel when I’m in conversation, is just that there are so many things happening at once, it’s like I’m supposed to listen to what the person is saying, look at what their hands are doing, look at what their body is doing, look at what their eyebrows and facial expression is saying, work out whether they’re speaking metaphorically, with sarcasm or perhaps they’re teasing me, then I have to analyse it all and figure it out all whilst even more things are going on in the room around me that are far more interesting! And it all happens so fast! When I say this, I of course mean no offence. I am not saying that people are boring or anything like that, but what tends to happen is my brain moves way to quickly and before I know it my focus has moved on to a whole new subject. It’s way too much for my brain to comprehend, and so I just try to focus on one thing at a time, which often isn’t the words that are coming out of their mouth. This tends to give the impression that I’m not listening, or that I don’t care what’s someone is saying. I’ve heard some aspie bloggers saying that the reason they don’t like looking into people’s eyes is because they feel like they’re being judged, and that it feels eerie to be looking at someone’s eyes and not being able to tell what their mind is thinking. I don’t like being judged, (after all, who does?) but looking at people’s eyes doesn’t always make me feel that way, it’s just that indescribable discomfort. They also said that they have no trouble looking at people’s eyes when they are on TV, I find that I don’t have any trouble with that either. They said it was because the eyes they see aren’t ‘real’. The eyes on the TV can’t see me, and therefore can’t judge me, and they aren’t looking at me directly, just the camera. That fact makes me feel better, so I have tried to make eye contact with TV characters, and actually see how their eyes and faces move in detail, but I still don’t understand how neurotypicals can read each other so easily, when faces move so fast and the hints are always so subtle. The solutions me and my parents came up with is that when in public and I have to speak to someone (for example if I’m ordering food at a restaurant) I will try to look at their eyebrows or nose, then at least I’m looking at their face, even if I am just making eye contact with their eyebrows. If I don’t like that strategy, I try to find out what colour their eyes are, although sometimes what can happen is I’ll be so focused on looking at them, that I’ll forget what I’m supposed to say. It becomes natural after a while to just give people’s faces a quick glance when I’m talking. I guess it just comes with practice. It also helps to have a clear idea of what you want to say (in my case what I want to order) and also have a few answers prepared in case they say something else as well. Sometimes, this doesn’t always work, so I’ll occasionally just look to my mum for help. It helps to have someone who, if you get in trouble, they can jump in and save you!

The Anxiety…

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Where do I begin? Anxiety is a very troublesome emotion, but is one that varies hugely depending on the individual. For me, anxiety is usually a growing sensation of being on edge, but can also be a feeling of detachment, and surrealism, which in turn creates panic.

The latter sensation often occurs when my routine is interrupted. For example, recently my school was closed due to the snow. As much as I was relieved and happy to get a day off and have fun in the snow, for the rest of the day, I felt quite disconnected – like things weren’t real. This wasn’t a pleasant experience, and it also led to a lack of focus on my part, as I felt like I almost couldn’t remember what day it was because nothing was fitting with the routine. The feeling of detachment also made me panic – it reminded me all too much of a similar feeling I get when I’m dreaming a nightmare but I can’t control it.

The former, however – the sensation of being on edge – I most commonly feel when I am surrounded by lots of people. It’s just your classic feeling of nervousness, and any person who is shy or introverted will have likely experienced it. When I get anxious, a lot of the telltale signs appear: walking on tiptoes, looking down, fidgeting and also that subtle stiffness when I move.

In situations like the one directly above, there isn’t always necessarily a solution. I tend to either seek out a distraction (e.g headphones, reading or even chatting with close friends or family if they are present), or to make a game out of it; pretending I’m on a mission to infiltrate a building or street and I have to act natural in order to remain undetected. It’s a little childish, I’ll admit, and I don’t use that strategy often, but thinking of it that way can sometimes help calm me down, because it’s a challenge to solve that I can think about in the same way as a puzzle, rather than dwelling on how many people there are and panicking about what to do if they approach me.

Anxiety, as I have mentioned before, is yellow in my eyes, and when I experience it, I often find it causes my mind to race, and the music track going round in my head almost always speeds up. In previous posts, I said it felt like the floor had dropped out from beneath me. That is partly true, but that is more when I am worried I have done something wrong, rather than just being nervous. So in a way, to me, anxiety has three meanings.

The Guilt Complex

Guilt-Cake-is-yummy

As an aspie, I have a really strong sense about right and wrong, which is sort of strange considering that I know that good and bad are relative terms created by humans to label themselves and encourage behaviour that is beneficial to an individual or society, and discourage that which isn’t. Sorry, I’m rambling. But the thing is, with my good conscience, also comes a ton of guilt if I ever do anything ‘bad’. If I ever do anything wrong, I will obsess about it for weeks, even months and if it’s particularly bad, I will still wince over it years later. The following days after an incident where I get in trouble, it feels like my stomach has been cut out, and there’s just a hole left. A hole that is continually growing and threatening to consume me. I know that may sound dramatic, but that is honestly how it feels. After a while it deadens, until the only time it really hurts is when I remember and get dragged into that depressing memory. I’ll end up thinking about it, usually late at night when I can’t sleep, and the hole through my stomach will start growing again, but then I can’t stop thinking about it. I recall a long time ago, where I listened to a parody version of a song that was often on the radio. However, the parody that I listened to contained swearing – nothing terrible, but still – but my younger self didn’t recognise it as such. Oblivious to the obscene profanity, I quoted the song lyrics to my mum – with my grandparents present as well. My mum, ever the kind one, quietly took me aside and informed me that the words I was singing weren’t allowed. Even though I hadn’t been aware of what I was doing, I still felt tremendously guilty, and this did result in tears. The worst part was, the song that I had listened to the parody of was very popular, and so was played on the radio frequently. Every time the song came on, I would be reminded of my accidental swearing, and that guilty feeling would open up. It still makes me cringe a little when I hear it now, although I do agree it is a good song.

Guilt is probably the worst emotion for me. It’s the one that hurts the most. If I had to associate the emotion with a colour, I would say I’ve always thought of guilt as a green, sometimes brownish yellow colour. I can offer no explanation as to why; that’s just how I think. And to reiterate myself, the emotion just feels like a hole in my stomach, although it often is accompanied by anxiety. Anxiety is a somewhat similar sensation, a gaping, pulling feeling as if something is missing; it feels like the floor has dropped out from under me, and I’m just falling. Anxiety is definitely an electric yellow, and that’s why I often associate guilt as such, because the two are paired.

As far as I am aware, there is no alleviation for guilt other than time or reassurance. If you have any coping , I’d welcome some comments!

The transition from Primary School to Secondary School – it’s not all that bad!

I had been at my Primary School for 7 years and was accustomed to the buildings, staff and everyone around me. I‘d had the same teacher for 4 years and had all the support I needed. But when the time came to decide on a Secondary school, things were actually ok. I was taken to have a look at the 2 secondary schools in my area whilst I was in Year5 and then again in Year6 so it wasn’t all too much to take in and I was quite relaxed. Although I like doing things in a traditional way and in a routine, I also like new, fresh starts and a chance to make myself better, so the thought of what a new school could offer me made me feel positive.

We went to the Open Evenings which were really busy and although I was excited and fascinated it was difficult to relax. I spent a lot of time smiling, but still avoiding looking at anyone. Then we went for a private tour which was better and then we met with the head of SENCO at one of the schools. I was included in all of the meetings and although I felt a bit awkward I could tell that the teacher we met knew so much about Aspergers that I felt like I trusted her right away.

Making the decision between the 2 schools was difficult so we sat down as a family and the tactic I used was to list all the pros and cons of each school. Once the decision was made, my primary school and my parents made appointments for me to visit the school – just for half hour at a time. I sat and ate lunch with a teacher so I could see the dining room at its full capacity. I visited and watched the classroom change-overs so I could hear the bell ringing. I saw a break time and got the chance to walk round the school when it was quiet. After every visit I wrote down any questions or requests I had that I hadn’t been brave enough to ask in person.  My mum could email the SENCO and find the answer, or we would arrange another visit. I was given a map and shown the contact book that we would be using. I liked this because I was able to analyse my surroundings, and when given an opportunity to find where I was I was thrilled because using what I’d learnt made me feel confident, even if I was in a new place.

My primary school was especially helpful: towards the end of the year I became part of a small group and we would talk about our worries and feelings with a teaching assistant. She gave us a little book which contained advice and tips on what to expect and importantly, how to respond! My best friend was also going to the same school and our parents both asked if we could be kept together in our Tutor Group. I think that thanks to both schools working together, this was made possible.

Over the summer holiday my new school emailed me my timetable. This was great because I was able to colour code it and put copies on my wall. I was also sent my profile. This is a piece of paper that all my teachers would have before I got there which explained my likes and dislikes. This was brilliant because I knew then that I would not be put in any awful situations – like the teachers telling me to “look at me when I’m speaking to you”. Something which I am just unable to do.

On my first day we had arranged that I would go in with my friend from her house so we didn’t have to worry about meeting somewhere and we could go in together. I was given a timetable and map along with everyone else but I felt confident because I had already seen these before.

I was given a locker and lots of books but it was all very exciting.

So far everything is going really well. There are of course some issues, mainly with not knowing how to respond to other children, there are so many personalities and it can get very busy. What helps me is talking it over with my family as soon as I get out of school and being given a resolution – so for example, the lunch time queue for food can be very busy and jostling so my mum suggested asking the school to put my plate to one side for me to collect. Once I knew I had this option I was able to deal with the queues, knowing that I had a way out but so far I have not needed it.

The SENCO are also very pro active in my school. I find it almost impossible to ask for help, especially when I am upset but the school has teachers specifically to look out for us and one of those teachers was coming to find me every week to make sure I was ok. Now I go to see her every other week. I keep a list in my head of anything that is bothering me and she will go through the types of things I can say to people to help me resolve things.

Everything is really positive. The only negative thing that I can really think of at the moment is that sometimes when someone knows you have Aspergers and they have read about what Aspergers is, they think a “one size fits all”, when it doesn’t. I don’t mind too much because it is really good that they have tried to understand it but sometimes I feel a bit awkward when they are trying to help me but it’s really over the top. It just shows that as Aspie Kids, we are all different and until you get to know us as individuals you won’t know how our needs differ. Because of my communication problems I can’t tell you if you are off track but it’s nice that you’ve tried!

Actually my communication has improved massively since starting secondary school. I know that I only have to be with a teacher for a single lesson, so they are only looking at me for an hour – not like in primary school when it was 6 hours! So I feel like I have a break in the intensity, even if I will be seeing them the next day.

Having Aspergers matters to me but it doesn’t bother me, if that makes sense? I don’t feel I need to tell people if I don’t want to because I think people judge me for me, not because I have Aspergers. My Aspergers is just who I am, it’s not a separate thing. People can’t like me but not like my Aspergers, because it’s the whole of me. If you like me, you like that I’m an Aspiekid, and so far that’s working just fine!

The (very) early years of having an Aspie-Kid

Our gorgeous daughter was born in 2005. You may not know Erin but she is beautiful, kind, intelligent, has amazing creativity and to us, is perfect in every way (takes after me I think!). She was our first child and my husband and I were the ultimate proud parents – although we really had no clue and I thought I deserved a medal for just getting out of the house before 3pm!

We realised Erin was not happy with other children pretty much as soon as she was old enough to know they were there. She didn’t really crawl and when other babies would crawl over to her she would start to scream and cry – a real “end of the world” type cry. As time went on and we graduated to soft play centres, Erin would be the one sat on my feet, wanting to investigate the toys but from the choice of staying attached to me or playing, she would choose the former. She didn’t need me to acknowledge her there, on my feet, but she would not let herself go unless I went with her. It’s worth saying we weren’t with strangers, I had the most amazing post natal group of friends who became my life line of support and who we met with once or twice a week every week for 5 whole years! One even became Erin’s Godmother! Erin knew these children and their parents but it made no difference.

When Erin was up and walking we would go to the park. On one occasion Erin was sat in a timber car up a ramp. It had a side window, a tiny gap that was about 5 foot off the ground. Another child slid onto the seat beside her and Erin shot out of this tiny gap to get away – luckily I caught her! Our friends just accepted she wasn’t good with other children. Nursery was a nightmare. She went for one day a week so I could work. I lost count of the number of calls I had to go and collect her because she had been crying so much she had made herself sick!

Erin liked everything just so. But that’s not unusual, many children like things in a routine. Their drinks out of a certain cup etc. I can remember one day I was carrying Erin upstairs for her nap and I had been dusting and had not put an ornament back onto the window sill. Erin screamed and cried and was burying her head in me saying “put it back, put it back”. I think it was this final reaction that made me realise that something was going on.

Erin’s dad and I did some research and we realised Aspergers seemed to fit the bill. Erin was clearly very bright. We still had very little understanding though and kind of muddled through. Erin was so well behaved but just got sad. It wasn’t until Erin was in about Y3 at Primary School. It was Christmas time and she was standing underneath a gazebo at school and I could see her face twitching. By the time we got home the twitch was worse. Having no idea I said “what on earth are you doing with your face??” Now knowing that that was probably the worst thing to say! The twitch got worse over the next few days so much so that in one period of 90 seconds she twitched over 60 times. I made an appointment with our GP who immediately referred us to a neurologist. Terrified does not come close to how we were feeling as parents. But it was Christmas so we had put up all the decorations, cards were hanging from every wall space and we tried to cheer everyone up by constantly talking about Santa.

We saw the neurologist within a matter of days. He examined Erin and told us it was stress. Stress! What on earth did my 7 year old have to be stressed about? My God, were we really such awful parents? He was great and explained that a child’s stress is completely different to an adult’s stress. Even exciting, positive stimuli could cause stress to a child on the spectrum. Erin’s stress levels were so high they had manifested themselves into a physical release.

We were referred to CAMHS. Initially I refused to accept the referral. I was mortified that my child was stressed and felt that CAMHS dealt with really ill, depressed children and that was not my daughter. My GP spoke to me and reassured me that they would be able to help. I am so glad we went. The wonderful Dr we saw chatted to both me and Erin and felt that Erin did have Aspergers. She explained the importance of keeping stimuli to a minimum and taught us both about the spectrum.

I cringed at how we had done just the opposite of that over Christmas. The guilt you feel as parents is indescribable. I grew her in my tummy so ultimately I felt the blame rested with me. How could my daughter who is so loved, feel so sad? We analysed over and over again everything we had done “wrong”. Then the fears for her future enveloped us, would she be happy? How could we make her happy? How could we protect her from this huge scary world? Well, with lots of research (and I mean loads) and lots of support from some fantastic friends, family and school, we put in place some great strategies for keeping routines and helping Erin know exactly what was coming next and importantly what was expected of her. Erin simply transformed.

Erin, at times, had a kind of sadness about her. People have said to me since, “oh she was such a miserable baby” (yeah thanks, that’s really great!) but now we understand why. Now that we understand so much more about what works for Erin she has absolutely blossomed.

I could write forever about our experiences, this all just seems so brief, but I think knowledge is truly key and Erin is the one who gives us, as her family, so much knowledge about where she is coming from, it makes it a privilege to be able to help her overcome the massive challenges that she faces in a simple day. We couldn’t be more proud of our Aspie-Kid and we love her to bits!