Hang on, I’m different

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In my entire road towards an autism diagnosis, it seemed a bit strange that I’d only talked to autistic bloggers, through blog posts and comments and email. On top of that, the majority of those bloggers came from the US, the UK, and Australia. Aspie Story and Blogging Astrid were the only fellow Dutchies I’d found so far. I still hadn’t met a single autistic adult in person.

So when my psychiatrist offered me the chance to participate in a series of group sessions for autistic adults to learn more about autism, I thought that would be a pretty good idea. Even though the session subjects seemed to cover a lot of ground that I was already familiar with, I was looking forward to meeting other Dutch people on the spectrum.

The group consisted of me and three other women. I won’t go into details to respect their privacy, but what really stood out for me was the reaction when I told the group about my own experiences in coming to terms with autism, about wanting to be autistic because it was the only thing that felt like all my experiences finally made some sense. About redirecting my energy and efforts towards things that would help me cope, instead of things that would make me appear normal. Allowing myself to be more visibly autistic.

At those last words, the entire group gasped in shock.

I’m not joking. I was the only one there who thought it wasn’t actually all that bad to be stimming in public.

Throughout the session, that impression was reinforced over and over. People were asking “If I don’t do things like that, then maybe I’m not actually autistic?” Looking for things that would prove they weren’t doomed for the rest of their lives. Looking for hope that maybe some day they could be fixed and be normal. Only seeing the negatives. I felt like I was the only one emphasising the good bits, the strengths, the FUN aspect of autism, the connection with other autistic adults, the recognition and acceptance that comes from finally belonging somewhere.

It was heartbreaking. It was exhausting.

So naturally, I decided to attend another networking group for autistic adults in the evening.

Yeah. That bit where I talked about learning how to redirect my energy and efforts to cope? I was lying. I’m used to a lifetime of pushing myself to do things. To push through the exhaustion. So of course it made sense to go to the evening gathering as well. Because autistic people, right? I can be myself there, right?

Wrong.

There was a pub quiz. People told me, like they always do at pub quizzes, “How do you know all that stuff?”, with the that-is-SO-not-normal look in their eyes that I recognise so well. I had my Tangle with me and people asked why I was constantly fiddling with it. People made remarks about how nice it was that this evening was just for high-functioning people and then looked at me and noticed me rocking. Unapologetically. Smiling. And I could see them judge me. Rocking is for Rain Man types.

In a gathering of autistic people who all tried to outdo each other in how high functioning they were, I talked about going non-verbal, and how emotions often feel overwhelming, and how hard it is to take good care of myself by eating on time and keeping my house clean. I made them laugh and nod in recognition. I talked about the energy and frustration it costs to pass for non-autistic, and why. I talked about not passing even when I try so hard. I talked about all the things that I read on all the blogs I’d been reading since the start of my diagnosis.

And in the middle of a discussion about high functioning and low functioning labels, and how maybe we should look at what a person is actually capable of, one of them said to me that maybe I needed a time-out to calm down, because I was rocking back and forth so much. And when I said I was just focusing on the conversation, and not feeling anxious at all, he didn’t believe me.

I still can’t truly come to terms with the fact that this happened. It happened. In a group of autistic people. It was just so entirely different from the autistic community I had experienced so far. The online blogging community. The community I’d taken to be… well, NORMAL. With their acceptance. The explanations that made so much sense. The empathy.

What I’d taken to be normal for being among our own.

In reality, the blogging community – that I accidentally stumbled upon when researching ways to get diagnosed as an adult  – was completely different from the real life community that I’d hoped to find. And it made me realise. My ENTIRE perception of autism as something that is intrinsically part of me, with the good and the bad, the meltdowns and the laughter, has been shaped by autistic adults who write from a place of acceptance.

What a difference that makes.

Acceptance has made me different.

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Asking for help

I curled up into a foetal position in bed, where I had been reading a chapter in Business for Aspies: 42 Best Practices for Using Asperger Syndrome Traits at Work Successfully by Ashley Stanford. On a side note, why do subtitles always need to be so incredibly long and cumbersome? Anyway. Here I was, curled up, tears running down my face. Not because something had reminded me of work, which you would expect from a book with that long cumbersome title.

No. The author had written about asking for help.

Her example was a young single mother with a full time job who was having a particular bad day. Overload. The thing she ended up getting stuck on was having to clean two plates to be able to give her daughter her dinner. And. She. Just. Couldn’t. Her brain simply stopped. Meltdown.

The only thing she could think of to do in a meltdown was to grab her “need help” list. First item, call parents. Say “Dishes”. Mother says string of words. No verbal recognition. Move on to second item, go to neighbour. Say “Dishes”. Neighbour can read between the lines. Comes home with her. Does dishes. Serves dinner.

And I cried. And I got so upset that I had to leave my safe space, my bedroom, and get dressed and come downstairs. Because my bedroom no longer felt safe. Because that’s where I realised.

I don’t have a “need help” list.

© Yong Hian Lim - Dreamstime.com

© Yong Hian Lim – Dreamstime.com


This is what goes on in my mind when I hit my brick wall.

  1. I should be able to do this myself.
  2. I will look like an idiot for needing help with this thing that I should be able to do myself.
  3. If I call my parents, they’ll worry about me. Because I’m 36 and I should be able to do this myself.
  4. My parents are over 60 and they live 30km away and I can’t ask them to come all the way here to help me with something I should be able to do myself.
  5. My youngest brother lives 30km away and he has his own young family and I know he often feels overloaded dealing with his own stuff. I should be helping him, not asking him to help me.
  6. My younger brother lives 70km away and doesn’t have a car. I can’t honestly ask him to help me with something this small and that I should be able to do myself.
  7. My best friend lives in London. I’m not even going to calculate how far away that is. And she’s busy with work and getting her law degree and doesn’t spend much time online these days, so I can’t whine to her about how difficult this thing is that I should be able to do myself.
  8. My ex works close to where I live. I can ask him, but he enjoys it when I need help because that makes me dependent on him and that might mean I want to get back together. And I’m afraid he will make jokes about sleeping with him as a thank you, and I never know if it’s just a joke or am I actually expected to sleep with him.
  9. I have another friend close to where I live. I can ask him, but his wife hates me because she thinks I flirt too much even when I’m not aware of doing it. And I’m afraid he will make jokes about sleeping with him as a thank you, and I never know if it’s just a joke or am I actually expected to sleep with him.
  10. Another good friend lives 60km away and doesn’t have a car. He would help me with this thing. But he never answers his phone or email. And besides, I can’t honestly ask him to travel all this way to help me with something this small and that I should be able to do myself.
  11. I don’t know anyone else close by.
  12. People will know I’m not the strong person they always say I am if I ask for help.
  13. I should be able to do this myself.

The stuff about being seen as not strong, or as a helpless idiot, are on that list because it wouldn’t be accurate to deny that they’re a part of the problem. But they are far less important than the fact that I simply don’t know WHO to ask. I know there are people willing to help me, but the practical obstacles to them actually getting here and helping me are HUGE.

And I don’t feel I’m worth all that effort. Other people’s problems always seem bigger than mine. What’s not being able to do my dishes compared to not being able to spend enough time with your children, or not having the money to jump on the train at a moment’s notice, or feeling exhausted from doing a full time job and getting a degree at the same time? I simply can’t feel that sense of entitlement. Other people’s problems should have priority to them.

But when I do manage to overcome all those objections in my own head and reach out and tell people I’m not coping, the results aren’t always favourable either.

An example of that happened recently.

I’d started a new job at the same time as I started the diagnosis process for autism. I soon got overwhelmed. Not only was the diagnosis draining my resources, but the job was something I’d never done before and I soon realised I didn’t have the knowledge to perform it accurately. After two and a half months, I crashed. I told my employer I had a burnout and asked for sick leave. I also asked him to get me in touch with work health services (this is a legal requirement in the Netherlands so wouldn’t be an additional burden for my employer) to help me get back to work as quickly as possible. I made an appointment with my GP and I called the clinic where I was doing my diagnosis to say I was having a crisis.

My employer asked me if I was OK with signing an agreement that I was not suitable for the job (which would qualify me for unemployment), and when I agreed he didn’t log my sick leave and didn’t get work health services involved.

My GP said that because of the diagnostic process, she thought I’d be better off asking the clinic for help because they had more experience with that sort of thing.

And the clinic said they couldn’t help me until I was officially diagnosed.

I was in crisis. I was losing my job and completely unable to function. I was desperate and asking over and over if there was anything anyone could do to help me get through this and start working again. And they all said I was on my own.

© Eladora - Dreamstime.com

© Eladora – Dreamstime.com

It’s just an example, but this sort of thing happens too often for me to be able to write it off as a fluke. Or as just bad luck. Or as people being stupid and inattentive.

No. This has to be me. This has to be the way in which I ask for help. It has to be the words I’m not using, the emotions I’m not showing, the way in which I am wired SO DIFFERENTLY from others that even professionals don’t recognise my despair.

Does that mean it’s my own fault for not getting the help I need? NO. MOST EMPHATICALLY NO. I can’t help being this way. Other people can’t help having their own preconceptions about what “asking for help” is supposed to look like. It’s nobody’s fault that I don’t match those preconceptions.

Does that suck? YES. MOST EMPHATICALLY YES. But I don’t have the power to change the world in one fell swoop. I will have to start small. Small changes. Creating awareness.

Does that mean I need to tailor my needs to fit what people expect? To make my needs fit a predictable pattern? NO. MOST EMPHATICALLY NO. But I will have to take responsibility for my own needs. Those needs are mine. I need them met. I will just have to get more creative in getting them met by others.

And the crying? That hasn’t changed. I need to forgive myself for crying about the fact that I have absolutely no idea how to make a list of people I can call when I need help. It’s OK to feel sad about that. Maybe I will never have a list. But I need to stop feeling like a failure for not even knowing who to call.

Quick update

I haven’t posted in a while. The reason for this is that I’m stuck on two things, both related to the second phase of my diagnostic testing.

Last week I had my first interview, together with my mother, about my behaviour in childhood. I am still processing what happened during that interview, and I haven’t gotten to the point yet where I can write about it.

Update! I’ve finished my post on the childhood behaviour part of my diagnosis, in case you’re interested.

My second interview is next week, and I’m working like crazy on getting some sort of grip on my thoughts so I’ll be able to present a coherent picture of how autism is affecting me at the present moment.

It’s hard work, but I think I’m sort of coping. Well, apart from pretty much not having left my bedroom for the past two weeks. Which is OK. I’m not going to push myself out of my comfort zone, there are more important things to focus on right now.

Hopefully I’ll be able to write about everything at length soon! In the meantime, here is a link to an animated kitty who purrs if you rub her belly.

flash-kitty-screenshot

http://s3.amazonaws.com/wbx-files/maukie.swf

What is my face doing?

That dreaded moment has arrived again. Time to renew my passport. Of course my passport expired a couple of weeks ago already (yay executive function!) so I really need to get it done SOON. In the Netherlands you are required to have a valid ID document with you at all times, and that means a passport or an official ID card. Driving licenses aren’t always valid ID, and besides, I don’t have a driving license. So passport it is.

And that means getting my picture taken.

That’s what I hate about renewing my passport. The rest is fairly standard, scripted stuff, nothing much that might throw me off. But photos? Argh.

Because I have no idea what my face is doing.

With all the rules about “no smiling, no visible teeth, face has to be completely visible, neutral expression”, having my picture taken becomes a task of gigantic proportions. Especially the neutral expression bit. In my current passport picture I look like a particularly depressed heroin junkie. And that took about 25 minutes of non-stop instructions by the photographer. “Tilt your head a little bit to the left. No, LEFT, not right. Raise your chin. Don’t smile. Open your eyes wider. Stop tilting your head to the right. You’re smiling again. Don’t frown.” And so on and so on. It’s really stressful because I have no idea how I look. Am I smiling? Is this ok? WHAT IS MY FACE DOING?

I used to practice at home for hours, trying to see in the mirror what the “right” position is to put my face in, and trying to remember which muscles I’m tensing and which I’m relaxing and what facial configuration does that result in and can I reproduce it? But usually as soon as I get to the photographer, I forget everything I’ve practiced and simply adopt my standard “deer in headlights” look. Or inappropriate smiling.

But that was before I knew about autism and maybe it’s not just me who gets confused by all the facial expression stuff. So this time I was determined to do it differently.

I took a mirror with me.

At the photographer’s, I tried to explain that I have trouble knowing what expression I have on my face and would it be OK if I kept the mirror in my hand so I could check? He just looked at me and asked me why on earth did I need to do that for? OK, fail. He then started explaining all about the requirements which I KNOW BY HEART so really that’s not the problem here. Fail again. Just take the damn picture already.

And then I went to a second photographer.

Yes, it’s an expensive solution. But I figured, if I just get as many passport photos taken as possible, at least one should fit the requirements. I can’t deal with the stress of not knowing whether my photo will be accepted or not. And if it doesn’t get accepted, I’ll have to do the entire thing ALL OVER AGAIN. So I’d rather have some extra expenses than all that added stress. I’m learning to accommodate myself. Which rocks, by the way.

When I explained to the second photographer, he turned the computer screen so I could watch and see each picture he took and adjust my face in whatever way I felt comfortable doing. And he helped me get my errant left incisor under control as well (it has a tendency to slip over my lower lip). And it took about 15 tries but I didn’t feel as self-conscious as at the first photographer’s.

Maybe I should go to a third photographer as well, but I’m sort of out of spoons and I think the second set is probably going to fit the requirements. Although I look cuter in the first set, I think. Oh well. I’ll take both of them with me when I go to the passport office.

Yes, I’m sure

It’s taken me some time to get around to writing this. But I need to write it down, and do it well and concise and understandable and logical and open and as vulnerable as I can bring myself to be. Because this Tuesday I’m scheduled to have my last intake interview at the mental health clinic. Where they are going to tell me whether in their opinion I am autistic enough to get help. Or I should just accept whatever help they are willing to offer me, even if it’s treating the symptoms and not the cause. Or maybe I’m just a big crybaby who should go home and try harder.

To the person doing the interview,

When your colleague called me three weeks ago to tell me that the team wasn’t yet of one mind and that’s why you wanted to schedule another interview concentrating on my social interactions and the possibility of depression, I felt very angry. I understand that you want to be thorough in your approach and I support that. But I am very much afraid of not being taken seriously and not being listened to. That is why I am giving you this letter, instead of addressing these concerns verbally, because I have less trouble articulating myself on paper than I do in person, especially where emotions are concerned. And this is a very important and emotional subject to me. I hope you understand this. I would appreciate it if you read this letter through to the end before commenting, but please be assured that I will do my best to answer all questions and comments you might have afterwards.

Core problem

I am functioning at a reasonable level without any supports, except for the fact that I have been fired or otherwise let go from 8 of the 12 jobs I have held in the past 13 years. I have a university education (although without a degree), which has enabled me to work in professional or near-professional level jobs. I have never had formal or informal complaints from supervisors or coworkers about the quality of my work, meeting of deadlines, or other work-related issues.

Instead, in the cases where a reason was given for dismissing me, it was always along the lines of “stubborn”, “impossible to work with”, “doesn’t listen”, “undiplomatic”, “devious behaviour”, “untrustworthy”, and so on. This was never addressed during my employment, or not in such a way that I saw what was happening and could anticipate and address problems arising at work. Every time I’ve been dismissed, I was taken completely by surprise.

I do not have any problems or complaints in other areas of my life that pose an impairment to my current functioning.

Depression

I understand that you wish to talk about depression. I do believe this is a logical request related to the suicide attempt that I have listed on my intake form. However, as discussed with your colleague in the previous interviews, I do not have any complaints or feelings of depression. My attempt was over 15 years ago, and I haven’t had any suicidal or depressed feelings since. I do not feel it has any bearing on the core problem I have sketched in the paragraphs above. I hope you can see why I feel this way.

Other concerns

As mentioned, I don’t experience other significant impairments. However, there are several traits that I feel might be related to my core problem, based on the official diagnostic criteria for autism and keeping in mind specific development in not previously diagnosed adult women. “Often” in the below context means more than once every two months. “Occasionally” means around once or twice a year.

  • Social interaction
    • I often get told not to take everything literally
    • I often get told how naive I am
    • I often get told that I said something very rude without realising it
    • I often get told I sound authoritarian or overly sure of myself
    • I often get told my spoken and written language is overly correct and formal
    • I often have trouble identifying emotions in others
    • I occasionally get told off for inappropriate copying of other people’s words or mannerisms
    • I often get told to smile more
    • I often get told smiling at that particular moment was inappropriate
    • My mother often told me when I was a child that my face and posture were unresponsive
    • I am often able to repeat an entire conversation word for word, but have no idea what kind of facial expression the other participant(s) had during the conversation
    • I occasionally get confused about who is currently speaking when talking to several people in a noisy environment
    • I often get confused when someone asks me “how are you?”
    • I often have no idea how to maintain my side of a social, informal conversation that does not revolve around the exchange of pertinent information
    • People often have to tell me specifically that certain information is restricted or sensitive or private.
    • I often get told I come across as uninterested in how other people feel or what they say
    • I often get told I come across as intensely focused and interested if the subject of conversation matches my interests
    • I occasionally get told I appear obsessed with people in the early stages of a friendship or relationship
    • I often have trouble maintaining friendships
    • I often don’t realise someone doesn’t like me until someone else tells me
    • People often don’t laugh at my jokes
  • Restricted interests or behaviours
    • I have (and have had as a child) several intense interests that do not match peer or age appropriate interests
      • I never got the hang of colouring outside the lines. That was what the lines were for.
      • I liked calligraphy although I never really got the hang of it. I settled on typography instead. At age 9.
      • I created passports for all my Fabuland figurines so I’d know how they were related to each other. I included imagined genealogies and “passport photos” I’d cut out from toy catalogues.
      • Another hobby from around the age of 10 was drawing detailed floor plans of fictional houses.
      • On holiday, one of my favourite pastimes was to look up German license plates we saw on the road and see which city they came from. We had a list in the back of our German road atlas where I crossed off the ones we’d seen.
      • I collected rocks, shells, bits of pottery, stickers, postcards, pressed flowers, things with cats on them, colouring pencils and crayons, buttons, beads, coins, and stamps. I adopted my dad’s match book and sugar bag collections. I still collect stamps and still haven’t found the courage to get rid of my buttons and beads. Or my foreign coins, come to think of it.
      • I have had the entire script of “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” memorised since around the age of 13. Yes, I made that website. It’s horrible and I made it a few days after I taught myself HTML.
      • When we watched “I, Claudius” at school when I was 14, I made a complete genealogical tree listing all the characters and their relations to each other, for fun. I had read the book by Robert Graves (in English) but I also got Suetonius from the library to use as source material. I took the tree with me to class.
      • By age 16, I knew the lyrics to around 150 Beatles songs by heart, and to nearly all the songs Ella Fitzgerald has sung (and I can sing them, too).
      • When the student I was partnered up with – to do a tour of Bernini’s sculptures in Rome – forgot to make a photocopy of the notes I’d given him, I did an improvised tour instead by narrating the Greek myths the statues were inspired by. I’d watched The Storyteller a lot.
      • I am not a complete Star Trek geek. I just know the general storylines and names of all the main and most of the secondary characters – up to Voyager – and I’ve probably seen most episodes more than three times. I also like to read articles on Memory Alpha for fun.
      • At the age of 35, I methodically and systematically changed my fashion awareness. I bought over 50 pairs of shoes in less than 2 months to make sure I had a pair in every necessary colour and style. Those were not impulse buys to make myself feel good, or behaviour that I was unable to control. It was on purpose.
      • I often get referred to as “the walking encyclopaedia” for my love of trivia and extensive knowledge of facts and figures.
      • I know everything there is to know about ingredient lists and additives and cheap substitutes for proper food and will gladly bore the tits off anyone about nutrition.
      • I need to have my books sorted first by language, then by alphabet. No exceptions. I have held discussions with friends on how to properly organise my books.
      • I have taught myself electrical engineering.
      • I have taught myself HTML.
      • I have taught myself Italian. Although not fluently.
      • In many of the online games I play, I’ll be the one making the list of all the player coordinates on the map. Or the list of quest items my alliance needs to collect. Or the Excel sheets with formulas to track character development.
    • I often have trouble moving on from a project when it’s not “finished” or “perfect” yet
    • I love watching things spin, like the washing machine
    • A visual break in or deviancy from a pattern can make me feel physically uncomfortable. (Especially #3, #7, #14 and #19).
    • I am hyperreactive to auditory, tactile, olfactory and visual stimuli
      • For as long as I can remember, I have twirled or stroked my hair or stroked my own clothes to comfort myself.
      • I can’t sleep when there’s sand or crumbs in my bed. I’ve been told not to make such a fuss by others. Princess and the Pea style.
      • Occasionally the tags in my clothes, or a seam that rubs against my skin, can drive me crazy.
      • I can’t have a conversation while the TV is on or the radio is playing.
      • I often get laughed at for visibly jumping when something makes a loud or unexpected noise.
      • I don’t like bright directional light or overhead fluorescent light.
      • I get very uncomfortable with images shown in quick succession, or with lots of variation in orientation and tilt. Watching a Minecraft roller coaster video makes me feel ill.
      • I am very sensitive to strong artificial scents, like being able to smell other people’s laundry detergent and shampoo – not to mention perfume or aftershave (Axe/Lynx should be classed as a WMD in my opinion). I could do this even when I was smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. It’s worse now.
      • I used to be a very picky eater, now it’s only vinegar that makes me physically ill. And hard-boiled eggs.
      • Even as a baby I refused to drink cow’s milk. My mother weaned me off breastfeeding when I was around 10-12 months old and I haven’t drunk any milk since.
    • I have not-so-good spatial awareness and proprioception
    • I often get called clumsy
      • I drop things daily
      • I often cut my fingers or hit myself accidentally
      • I often walk into things
      • I often have bruises on my legs and arms that I don’t remember getting
      • I occasionally fall backwards without any particular reason
      • I have to be very careful when going up or down the stairs, I trip easily
    • I used to have problems with fine motor skills as a child
      • I have very good handwriting now, but I still hold my pen “the wrong way”

  • Other
    • I often do not hear someone speaking to me when I’m focused on an activity, like reading a book
    • I often have executive dysfunctions in the following areas
    • I’m often anxious about social interactions
    • I’m often overwhelmed by sensory input
    • I have strengths in the following areas:
      • Attention to detail (for example proofreading, I can spot a typo from a mile off)
      • Problem solving and analysis
      • Very good phone voice. I didn’t get a pleasant voice by accident. It takes concentration and practice.
      • Not letting angry customers “get to me”
      • Scripting customer interaction
      • Writing user manuals
      • Highly acute sense of fairness and honesty
      • Very loyal
      • Love to learn new things and apply knowledge in new ways
      • Getting along with programmers

In summary, I don’t feel very impaired by these traits, but I do think they shouldn’t be seen separately from my core problem.

Awkward pose

While researching the second part of my yoga post, I came across a list of yoga poses that mentions “utkatasana” or Awkward Pose. Awkward. No kidding. That brings me to what happened after I overslept for my first yoga class.

After going through all the trouble of buying sports clothes, I wasn’t going to waste my momentum. So I planned a new appointment in the evening, figuring that would make it harder to oversleep (well, unless I was going to take a nap after work). Again, I was so grateful for not having to call but being able to simply book online. I probably would have had to rehearse the phone call in my head about 5 times before being able to call. If I would have done it at all. I know other people don’t show up for appointments too. But I have this rigid rule in my head that says it’s simply NOT OK and that’s why I need to have an excuse and sleeping late is not a socially acceptable excuse and oh my god ANXIETY. So, it felt good to avoid all that.

Tuesday evening arrives and I make my way down to the yoga studio. When I step in, there’s a big sign saying “no shoes” and an arrow pointing to an area next to the reception desk. There are other shoes sitting there. Good, I like clear instructions and this gives me something to do while I take stock of my surroundings. A white cellar with a round, low ceiling and no windows. This is the sort of location the city is famous for and it definitely has its charms, although in all likelihood it’s going to be very hot on this summer evening.

Example of medieval cellar (photo by Puur* events)

I say to the woman manning the desk that I’ve come for my first lesson, she tells me to go ahead and pick a spot. At the back I notice some people so I walk over there thinking maybe one of them will look like they could be the teacher. No, they are changing into different clothes and putting their bags in lockers, so I copy their behaviour. When I’m done doing that I turn around and notice nearly all the yoga mats are now occupied. I start getting a little bit anxious because I don’t know what is acceptable behaviour in a yoga class. Should I take the nearest mat? Does everyone have a favourite spot? Where is the teacher? What should I do? How can I avoid offending people?

As I slowly walk between the mats, trying not to bump into people doing yogaish stuff (meditating?), I notice that even the mat that I’d sort of picked out has a towel lying on it. Oh bugger. Full panic now. And then I do something that I’m still awfully proud of: I walk back to the reception desk and say to the woman: “I’m sorry but I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed. I have an autistic spectrum disorder and new situations make me anxious. Could you help me get started?” GO ME! You’ll have to imagine the flat voice, slight stutter and frowny face for yourself. However, she immediately says, “No problem! Come along, I’ll walk with you to the back where you can get your own yoga mat and then we’ll find a spot for you where you’re comfortable and can see what I’m doing.” So I guess she’s the teacher then. GO HER! This is all kinds of awesome.

During the yoga class I have several more moments where I get a bit overwhelmed, especially when the instructions are very verbal (like “stretch your left hand, bend your right knee, twist your body to the right while stretching out your right hand behind you and then twist your head to the left”. OK, I lost you at stretch your left hand. Which side is left again?). During the sun salutation, a classic flow of yoga poses that I used to love doing as a child, the instructions follow each other so rapidly that I freeze completely. But then I remember. This is yoga. It doesn’t matter if I can’t do it perfectly. I’ll get there in my own time. Breathe. Find a pose that works for my body, instead of frantically trying to figure out what everyone else is doing. Breathe. Stretch. Breathe. I wait out the sun salutations and start participating again when the class moves to the next pose.

At the end of the class, I’m very dizzy so I don’t get up when everyone else does. I’ll get there in my own time. I think this is the most valuable lesson yoga can teach me. The muscle control, the workout, and the stretching are just a bonus. And even with my imperfect execution, I already feel like the child I used to be, just enjoying the movement. Now I just need to find a tree to climb.

Update: apparently the best tree for tree-climbing is in Wallington, Northumberland (UK).