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  • Burnout: The Lighting of the Fire

    There is often a noticeable tipping point of some kind when things change course towards trouble; an almost imperceptible slurring of words heralding mental decline, an odd knock in an engine a thousand miles before it seizes, a vague limp on a racehorse.

    I can remember the event that equivalently indicated the moment of lighting the fire that would burn along the neural circuits in my brain that had been responsible for autistic masking, following those circuits and burning them away like kindling whilst the more ancient and hardy circuits in the rest of my brain remained untouched.

    It was in the summer of 2017. I’m pretty certain of the season because we were outside and it was a warm evening. The year is harder to place but I know that I was leading a small team (for “small team” read “team of three, one of whom was me”) at work and my “Life timeline” Google Sheets workbook tells me that this fact means that it must have been 2017!

    The place was one of a couple of dozen hotels that I’ve stayed at in the UK for work off-site meetings that combine team-building with celebrations and “kick-off events”. I wish I could narrow it down more than that (and I wish I could remember all of these places because some were quite awesome) but all I know is that it was somewhere midway between Hertfordshire and Hampshire.

    The Crystal Maze

    I remember the event perhaps because at least part of the “team-building” games were being MC’d by -if I remember correctly- the daughter of the star and/or creator of the UK TV Game Show “The Crystal Maze”.

    A weird crackling noise

    One of the challenges that we had to complete during that event was the famous “Tower of Hanoi” puzzle. We had to complete the challenge as a team, and the puzzle pieces were large vinyl-covered square cushions that we had to viscerally move around in the outside setting.

    As we started, I had an unfamiliar experience; I didn’t know instantly how to solve this puzzle. Bear in mind that at this point I was 49 or 50 years old and “Mid Career”. I had been used to being intellectually sharp and used to the fact that this usually meant that I would be the one in the team to say “I’ve got it, here’s what we do!”. Not this time.

    But that wasn’t the only unsettling thing, and by no means the most significant. The next thing that went through my brain was this:

    AND, I DON’T CARE

    That was a very new feeling. Almost all of my sense of self worth at this point in my life rested on the fact of my intellectual success and insightfulness at work, and I was letting it go. Even more unsettling, I was letting it go because I couldn’t hold on anymore and I was letting it go without knowing what, if anything, would replace it.

    But the Masking?

    How has any of that got anything to do with autistic burnout and autistic masking? I don’t know for sure. All I know is that it was the beginning of letting go, the beginning of realising that keeping up appearances was becoming too hard and was ultimately unsustainable.

    Later that evening, we ate outside at tables arranged around a barbeque. I remember now that I had quit alcohol at the time and was a few months into a 6 month period of not drinking (which, by the way, confirms this as being in the last 6 months of 2017). So I didn’t have that crutch to sustain me through the social side of dinner. Thankfully, randomly leaving the table to get more drinks or food was part of the evening’s unwritten rules and we weren’t sitting in pre-set table groups. But I struggled to maintain interest in conversation. I especially couldn’t feign interest in a set of long stories being told by one of the table’s older and more senior members.

    I hatched a plan to exit quietly. As I left the table to get another drink (of Fanta, probably) I decided to wander inside the hotel and after a minute or two pretending to enjoy the ambience, I went to my room and stayed there until bedtime. I hadn’t said “Please excuse me” or “Goodnight” to anybody. How rebellious!

    Two months to Burn a Mask

    As I look through my “Life Timeline” workbook, I can find more clues that narrow this teambuilding event down to probably August 2017. My full on crash happened on Monday 23rd October 2017 – the Monday after the Sunday’s Great South Run.

    So from those first signs, it took about two to two and a half months for my brain to erase the neural circuits that had been put in place over a lifetime to allow me to blend in, pretend to be non-autistic, and survive in the corporate world.

    Now, five years on from there, I can say with a fair amount of certainty that those neural circuits are gone for good.

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  • The Double Edged Sword of Free Associating Brains

    CW brief (& tangential) mention of torture & death.

    Since what seems like forever, I’ve been aware of thought processes that go like this: suppose I’ve just woken up and discovered that it’s a nice sunny day.

    Oh that sunshine is nice! Isn’t it awesome that it feels so lovely and warm from 93 million miles away? [Now I’m in a space capsule heading towards the sun] “I bet it would feel really hot with no wind in the space capsule. How close would you be able to get to the sun before the heat became unbearable? Maybe only a few hundred thousand miles from here. What’s that as a percentage of 93 million? Gosh I wish that people didn’t say “Pence in the pound” when all they need is “Percent” which *simply* means “per hundred”. Why don’t they teach that in schools? Maybe they do nowadays. And people dissing Pythagoras all the time. You need Pythagoras to work out the magnitude of a complex number. All of engineering would be impossible without that! Ahh I remember doing complex algebra during my PhD. I used to love writing the curly delta signs on partial derivatives. Especially in ballpoint pen. Oh and I used to love writing with my calligraphy set as a child!

    This sort of thought can go on and on. One morning I’ll be led to thinking about something technical, another I’ll get stuck on how it would actually feel to get fried to death by being too close to the sun. Or I’ll link sunlight to quantum theory to the definition of a second to how long I think I could bear to be tortured for in a variety of ways.

    Rapidly associating one thing with another like this is how I’ve “thought outside the box” and been successful at work. But it’s also how I’ve paralysed myself with fear as my brain works out in just how many ways *everything* can go *horribly wrong*.

    By the way, if Lynn asks me during this sort of thought pattern “What are you thinking about – you look like you’re miles away?” I will answer “Nothing much!” because explaining it all is just so much pointless effort.

    The Galton Board of Mental Gymnastics

    There’s a thing called a Galton board which is used to demonstrate a mathematical concept but also features in TV game shows like “The Wall”. It’s a regular arrangement of pins on a vertical board, and you drop a ball in at the top and it bounces from pin to pin and emerges randomly from many places into tubes or funnels at the bottom.

    I was explaining to someone at the weekend how my dad has thought processes like this, but in his case the bouncing ball in the always comes out in the funnel marked “Cars”. Anyone can give *any* topic to dad, and in about three bounces on average he’s talking about cars (which, I now believe, is his autistic special interest).

    Dad: “How’s work?”

    Me: “Oh, hard. I had to do a presentation for the finance director”

    Dad: “We had a nice finance director at work. He left in 1989 though. No it was 1988 because he bought a brand new Jaguar X-type just before he left. Lovely cars those. Terrible seating position though. And they had all sorts of trouble with the throttle cables.”

    Unlike with dad, *my* Galton board seems to have more than one output funnel. Or, more accurately, I have more than one Galton board in my head. Some start with only a few topics and fan out to hundreds of possibilities, where some start with many and end in a few. I don’t think I’m ever sure which board my brain is going to choose. Unfortunately for me, anxiety likes playing with them.

    Change is possible

    One interesting (and useful) thing is that you can re-label the funnels on your mental Galton boards. Or you can choose to have new funnels appear and old ones fade away. Even better than that, you can swap out the pins higher up and replace entire sections of board.

    There’s an idea known as the Availability Heuristic which basically says that you can only think about topics that have any kind of immediate availability to be thought about in your head, and that the sorts of thoughts that hang around in your head are likely to be the ones that you end up thinking about.

    So, if you always end up thinking about things that you find disturbing, it *can be* because you have a lot of disturbing topics that you habitually think about that jump up and down shouting “Me! Pick me!” when the ball goes bouncing past. Of course the random ball won’t always pick them, but if there are lots of these thoughts around, it’s more likely that the ball will pick one of them.

    And, as an autistic person, I think I have both a) this type of ping ping thought sequence and b) a tendency to bias my focus towards things that could go wrong.

    In my experience, it’s not easy to pull out the unwanted pins and simply leave a blank hole. But what seems to be easier is to flood the board with positive things by consciously choosing the less disturbing thought whenever you have that choice as a conscious possibility that you’re aware of. That way, the next ball has a nicer ride and this reinforces the habit of spiralling thoughts ending up in happier places.

    Irony

    I now realise that the way I wrote this post was very much an example of the kind of thought process that I described in it. I had no idea that during writing it I was going to ping the pin marked “Availability Heuristic” that had been sitting un-pinged in my brain for at least 10 years.

    So it’s another of those posts that “wrote itself” in a way that I didn’t anticipate. I hope you enjoyed it!

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    p.s. One of the inputs to this was an Instagram post about how autistic people tend to think like this, and I have to agree with the post where it says effectively “Wait, you mean other people *don’t* think like this?”. The thought process as described in that post seemed exactly the way I think and not at all unusual.

  • “But I thought you liked [this thing]?”

    I’ve often confused people by holding back from something that they thought I liked.

    For example, imagine I’m out with family at some kind of outdoor event and we see an exhibition of something related to one of my hobbies or work. Everyone might start walking towards the exhibition thinking that I would enjoy seeing what was being shown and even enjoy having a chat to the people exhibiting it.

    What’s going through my head though, is usually stuff like this:

    • Oh god, I don’t want to talk to them because I’ll feel embarrassed. Either I’ll know more about it than they do, or they won’t want to talk about the aspects that fascinate me. Either way, there will be an awkward disconnect.
    • Yes, I do like [those things] but not that particular type. I have no interest in that type that’s being exhibited. That’s *really hard* to explain to people who don’t know or care about the difference between different types of an obscure thing.
    • I’m only interested in examples of [those things] that I actually own. I don’t want to look at one belonging to somebody else and I certainly don’t want to talk to them about it.
    • My interest in the thing is for reasons that other enthusiasts of the thing probably wouldn’t get or be interested in, and I’d feel disconnected and embarrassed. (For example, see why I enjoyed Train Spotting as a child).
    • I’d feel embarrassed talking about the thing in earshot of my family and friends, and God forbid they would join in the conversation and say something embarrassing!

    So as we are walking towards the thing, I would get increasingly interested in *not* going to see the thing, and eventually someone will say “Why are you being weird? I thought you *liked* [this sort of thing]?”

  • Train Spotting

    There are things about train spotting that I have enjoyed, but it’s not a passion. This has already given me an idea for another blog post on the theme of how I confuse people so that they end up saying “But I thought you liked [this thing]?”

    So this is just a straightforward list of what I enjoyed about going train spotting with my dad and his other train spotter friend in the late 1970s.

    • The excitement of seeing rare trains. For me this wasn’t any of the old steam engines but simply a type of diesel-electric train that didn’t come through our local station very often.
    • Learning how to identify the different types of diesel-electric train, and having this confirmed by reading the “Class number” of the train as it passed.
    • The sensory joy of underlining numbers in “Motive Power” in ballpoint pen, with a ruler.
    • The smell of vending machine coffee on my fingers, the Nestle Crunch bar I always had with the coffee.
    • The throbbing of the engines as they pulled away
    • The smell of hot brakes on the stone train (i.e. the train that carried stone & which had very hot brakes because it had stopped at the station carrying tonnes and tonnes of stone)
    • The silence of distant lights in the cold, dark, evening

    You’ll probably notice that a lot of this is about sensory things. I once went to Crewe (UK train spotter central) to see lots of trains parked up in a shed / museum, and was quite underwhelmed because they weren’t moving (making noise, smells etc).

    So yes, I’ve enjoyed aspects of train spotting and there is a lot of read-across about categorising things that appears in my other hobbies, but I wouldn’t call myself a train spotter.

  • The Missed Opportunities

    Hindsight is 2020. Although the things below don’t on their own indicate autism, taken together they are pretty strong clues. So I thought I’d list them.

    When I was a child:

    • Being called “Robbo the Robot” at primary school
    • The complex tic I had (& being called “Sniffy” because of it)
    • Only ever having one or two friends
    • Zooming around on the carpet with my forehead pressed against it because I loved the feeling of carpet rushing against my forehead
    • Watching Open University on TV by choice during school holiday daytimes
    • Complaining about labels in my clothes
    • Building a geodesic sphere out of “straws and hubs” kits at school when other kids were making badly shaped donkeys, because platonic solids have inherent beauty (and, spookily, later doing a PhD with geodesic spheres being the subject!)
    • Being sent to sit in the year above’s maths lesson (I don’t remember why) and still being the first with my hand up answering all of the questions correctly (it was fractions & I was frustrated to be the only one who called a quarter a quarter and not “four”!)
    • Teachers getting frustrated with me when I wrote another factual piece about the geological structure of the Earth when what she had asked for was “a story”
    • Talking to the TV repair man about how TVs work when he visited to fix ours
    • Going train spotting with dad but mainly liking it for the sensory experience
    • Being obsessive about keeping my bedroom tidy as a teenager
    • Complaining “I don’t like getting wet” when asked to bathe or wash
    • Reading a science dictionary every night, often re-reading my favourite parts
    • Having favourite parts of a science dictionary!
    • Working out for myself how to write software to decode Morse code in real time from radio reception, and succeeding (also teletype news bulletins, and weather faxes)
    • Being fascinated by and soothed by distant spinning radars and flashing lights in the darkness of an evening in the countryside or on the beach
    • Loving the sensory feel of laminated reading comprehension folios – especially the new colour scheme when “going up a level”
    • Having a “reading age” of 13 when I was 7, but still having a reading age of 13 when I was 13.
    • Telling my friends to “Shush!” every 5 minutes when they slept over on my bedroom floor. They were breathing, and keeping me awake.

    As an adult:

    • People noticing that I don’t get eye contact
    • Working out for myself how to write software to create “Magic eye” 3D pictures, and succeeding
    • Me, observing myself and saying to others “I don’t get hints so please be direct” and “I don’t give hints, I’ll just tell you”.
    • Completely, totally, being unable to relate to why anyone likes to watch football
    • Extended time off work with “depression”
    • A strong preference for communicating by email even within an office
    • Being told by therapists that some of my behaviours “seem immature”
    • Complaining about going on holidays
    • Hating sand, sandpaper, chalk
    • Struggling with wet clothes in swimming pool changing rooms
    • Maintaining a spreadsheet documenting all relevant life experiences with dates
    • Maintaining a financial model of household finances for over two decades, so far
    • Feeling intimidated in male-only spaces or in the company of only men
    • Finding it hard to go to a shop “on the way home from work” (I would come home first, then go out to the shop)
    • Eating the same foods (or a small selection on rotation) for lunch
    • Hating Christmas at university and work because of the way it disrupted the canteen menus
    • Not being able to go into my own garden in case I had to talk to a neighbour or (worse) their kids
    • Going back to edit blog posts to correct factual mistakes even though nobody reading would notice because the story is the same with the fact left uncorrected
    • Being susceptible to forming strong but unreciprocated attachments to people who are, actually, acquaintances and not friends
    • Being unable to make friends or maintain friendships
  • Watering Dead Plants

    I read recently on one of those self-care type Instagram posts, “Stop Watering Dead Plants”.

    I really connect this with how I try, fruitlessly, to make and maintain friendships. I don’t know who I have in my life who fits the definition of a “friend” but I’m almost certain that it’s fewer than 5 people, and possibly only 3 – and none of those are “We chat regularly on the phone and meet for coffee every Thursday” type friends. If I really stretched it, I could say I have maybe half a dozen people I could list who I chat to over WhatsApp or social media who I could say I share a level of mutual disclosure with, but that’s really about it.

    In my lifetime I have definitely tried to water plants that weren’t interested in responding & watering me back. The best I’ve achieved by doing this is generating acquaintances who were happy to go along for the ride and take advantage of my generosity. Being generous, whether practically, financially or verbally, is probably the tool I’ve used most to try to kick off a friendship.

    I’m actually pretty done with it now. I’ve adapted to life without many meaningful friendships and I’m just going to wait and see if anyone comes along. No more watering dead plants.

  • I Thought You Were Good at Maths?

    I am, or was, pretty good at “maths”. That’s if by “maths” you mean being able to work with and visualise abstract concepts and remember and apply rules about how abstract objects behave. It’s this sort of thing that made getting a PhD pretty straightforward for me.

    This does not mean that I’m good at arithmetic. I still don’t fully have all of my “times tables” memorised, and, when I used to pay for things in cash at a supermarket, I would dread the “Have you got the three?” question. I’d prefer to come home with a pocket full of change than have to stand there doing mental arithmetic under pressure.

    Executive Functioning & Shame

    I remember when I was a teenager getting the “I thought you were good at maths?” jibe thrown at me. Often by people who would then follow up with “I went to the university of life, me”. I was frustrated at the time because I wanted to rage at these people until they could understand that arithmetic is but one small (very, tiny) part of “maths” and not a very exciting one to me, and that shaming me for being bad at it was attacking my weaknesses and totally ignoring my related strengths.

    Nowadays, having being diagnosed autistic and spent time in autistic online spaces, I understand that mental arithmetic has a lot to do with Executive Functioning and that this is something that I have difficulties with. Not least because mental arithmetic relies a lot on short term memory and being able to use those few “memory slots” to hold the numbers that you would instead write down if you had the opportunity.

    I’ve spent a lot of my life agreeing with these accusing jibes. “I should be good at this. How can I not be good at this when I’m good at that?”

    And those kinds of extrapolated expectations spread easily into everyday life; “How can I plan software validation in my sleep and yet fail to remember a bar order?” (Answer – I must be stupid and clueless like everyone says).

    Lack of support and Stress

    Those easy assumptions that we all make about how competent people are, the ones that treat competence as a single thing and label people either “Super clever” or “Idiotic” (sic[1]) or “High Functioning” or “Low functioning” (sic sic sic sic sic!) are really, really unhelpful.

    I have experienced hand-trembling, chest-pounding, blood-draining levels of stress because I failed to arrange a meeting *again* this time forgetting one other random thing from the list of “Declare objectives, write agenda, invite people, negotiate best date venue and time, circulate minutes of last meeting, book suitable meeting room, tell reception to expect visitors” and so on. Similarly I’ve had the same sort of stress getting Christmas cards and presents for people because I always forgot one combination like the card from our cat to my gran’s dog.

    Eventually I started looking after myself by making checklists, but it would have been a lot easier if I had known about Executive Functioning much, much earlier in life.

    A benefit of Diagnosis

    So, a benefit to me of autism diagnosis (and I include self diagnosis / realisation here) and consequently spending time in relevant online spaces is that I now know about Executive Functioning and that being good at one thing has nothing to do with being good at another.


    [1] if you haven’t come across it before “sic” in this context effectively means “Their words not mine”

  • The Awkward Dolphin

    Imagine that you’re a horse.

    But you don’t know, because you’ve been brought up by a school of dolphins.

    For years you’ve been swimming with them and getting on OK. You’ve felt a bit awkward at times, and wondered how they seem to have more stamina than you and go faster quite effortlessly. But you’ve just thought that you were an awkward dolphin.

    One day, as you’re swimming close to the shore, you see an animal walking on four legs. A flash of mutual recognition passes between you, and you feel disoriented. Inquisitive, you walk up the shore and say hello. “Hi”, says the horse. Hours pass in what seems like minutes. You feel so at home. Everything the horse says rings true about your own life.

    Eventually you turn back towards the sea, saying that you must get back. “Why?”, says the horse “Horses live on land”.

    “Yes, but I’m a dolphin”, you say.

    “I think you’re a horse, just like me” replies the horse. “Why don’t you stay a while longer?”

    So you stay.

    A few days later, you hear a call from the sea. “Hey! When are you coming back to the sea?”

    “I, I don’t think I am” you say. “I feel so at home here. It’s like this environment was created just for me. I don’t get tired here, and – look – I can do this!”

    You rear up on your hind legs and gallop off down the beach faster than any dolphin can swim.

    The dolphins start chattering about interventions and rudeness and land-like behaviour before eventually losing interest and talking about coral and just doing general dolphin shit.

    But you are happier than you’ve ever been. Your legs get stronger. You understand more horse language than you ever thought possible.

    Weeks later, you venture further along the beach and hear a commotion. A school of dolphins seems to be attacking some of the other horses. They have ropes around them and are dragging them into the sea. They’re chattering about behaviours and interventions and horse awareness. They’re giving the horses big lists of things that they “Need to do to fit in better”. They’re even talking about detecting horse-ism early. Nobody knows why.

    You shout “Hey! Leave the horses alone!” but your horse friends tell you “It’s no good. They don’t hear horse voices above their clicky dolphin chatter. They only listen to other dolphins who claim to be horse experts.”

    “We can’t do anything?” you ask.

    “No” says your friend. “Not today. But one day, when the dolphins finally understand that horses are just as much part of life as they are, that all horses are different just like all dolphins are different, that some are strong and some struggle just like dolphins do, then maybe they will let us each be the best horse that we can be instead of making us pretend to be dolphins.”

  • Carpet Burns and Strange Rhythms

    When I was about 7 or 8 I would pull my fringe down over my forehead and put my head down on the carpet and then zoom around like an aeroplane with a collapsed nose wheel – because I loved the feeling of carpet rushing over my hair against my forehead. I sometimes got carpet burns on my forehead from it.

    “Stimming”

    One of the things that autistic people often do is referred to as stimming. Stimming is a sensory seeking behaviour that tends to provide comfort or help with emotional regulation (these are my words based on my own understanding).

    Stimming appears in the diagnostic criteria for autism in the DSM-V, but not in a way that means that a person must stim in order to be diagnosed autistic. Many autistic people would say that they don’t stim – including me, until the pennies started dropping. Stimming is listed under the heading of “Restricted and repetitive behaviours” which also includes needs for sameness, special interests, and sensory sensitivities.

    The good old “traditional examples”

    The DSM-5 helpfully lists examples of restricted and repetitive behaviours (RRBs) to aid clinicians in their evaluation of a person, but they are really quite restricted and stereotyped (ironic, huh?).

    The good old RRB “Lining up toys” is listed in this part of the criteria – I say “good old” because it seems to be the example that people remember and then go on to use to question the diagnosis of (or withhold diagnosis from) the people who don’t do it.

    To be clear, “Lining up toys” is one sign that might indicate autism, but it doesn’t guarantee it and neither is it something that all autistic people do.

    It’s the objective, not the specific behaviour

    Every now and then in the autistic online world someone will pose an #AskingAutistics question about stimming. I’m really glad they do, because the examples that come back are wonderfully diverse. And they all share that common objective of providing comfort, mindful centering or emotional regulation. I think I would agree with many autistic people who say that almost anything can be a “stim” if it’s done for those reasons and has some kind of repetitive edge to it.

    Of course, there are those who are ready with “You’re not properly autistic” if someone says they stim by dancing or tapping their fingers on a desk or gazing into sunlight. But these people really miss the point, I think. Discounting behaviours because “everyone does that” and using it to question diagnosis is missing the point of “why”; what is the person looking for in that behaviour (consciously or not)?

    By the way, telling someone they are “Not properly autistic” because they don’t do X or Y is a really shitty thing to do (unless, just maybe, you’re a kind clinician who has evaluated the person and you’re carefully and caringly explaining why the person doesn’t meet the diagnostic criteria). See Impostor Syndrome.

    My own stims

    I haven’t done the head-on-the-carpet move for decades, but I still remember the feeling. At the same age, I had a complex tic involving grunting, sniffing, grimacing, shaking my head and blinking. I say “complex” because I had a compulsion to do all of those things in a specific order or together to play out a particular rhythm, and I would keep doing it because I never got it quite right. Unfortunately, even though I did it during a medical appointment with a doctor, nobody thought to question why I was doing it. But I still catch myself doing some parts of this routine even today.

    Other things I think are very probably stims include gazing into distant flashing lights or spinning radars & losing track of time, listening to very loud music with a strong pulse and heavy bass, rubbing my feet on the edge of the bed when I’m going to sleep or waking up, twanging rulers on the edge of a desk, clicking my tongue, and a host of similar ones that have become such a part of my life that nobody notices them.

    “Didn’t display any stereotyped behaviours”

    My autism diagnostic report says that I didn’t stim on the day. I probably can’t argue with that, but I do wonder if the list of examples used in the DSM-V is based on decades old observations and somehow misses the whole point of what stimming is. I don’t “rock” for instance, because my proprioceptive sense gets enough stimulation and I don’t need to provide it with more. But there are loads of ways that I look for stimulation visually, aurally, orally and haptically.

    I should have known when somebody said at work about 20 years ago “Why do you eat all of the pens?”. I literally did. I could have a Bic biro in my possession for no more than an hour before I had cracked the sides of it in my teeth and if I was unlucky had the ink from it all over my mouth. All of the Bic biros in my drawer were chewed in this way – and I would typically have a drawer full because I was forever needing a new one.

  • Socially Unacceptable

    I have been judged, or anticipated judgement, for *so many* of the ways that I’ve behaved, the ways that I’ve talked about wanting to behave, and the things I’ve kept hidden because of the judgement I’ve received for the other ones I’ve revealed!

    The summary seems to be that the way that I want to live my life through my own free will are at odds with what society, family and friends expect.

    I want to try to talk about some of them. Obviously I have to be very careful because I risk rubbing salt into wounds that I’ve already inflicted on other people.

    Below are the two key things that are on my mind when I think of this.

    Visiting Family

    I think I can tackle this one relatively safely because it’s very much on display and has been since at least the 1980s if not before. It’s not true to say that I have no desire to meet up with family members, it’s just that I don’t have a need to do it as often as others do. For me, if I’ve seen uncle X or cousin Y or even closer family members this month or even this year, that’s enough (I’m talking about face to face here, not texting which I’ll happily do as much as anyone wants!). My mum would be happiest if she could see everyone in her family circle at least once a week if not more, but I really don’t have this need.

    Partly it’s because visiting family is, at the end of the day, socialising, and that drains me even if I’m 100% comfortable with whom I’m with and love them to the moon and back. And it doesn’t give me (as much of) the warm and fuzzy feelings that others get in recompense.

    Partly it’s also because I’ve deliberately created a life that I love (or at least where anxiety is minimised) and that, by definition, is my best place to be. Why would I want to be anywhere else?

    The pushback: “Uncle X won’t be here forever you know!”. No, I’m not stupid. But does that mean that whilst he is here I should do things that I don’t want to do? I don’t get that logic.

    Cards and Presents for Christmas, Birthday, Easter, etc etc etc

    Of course, when I was a child, I was excited to receive gifts of any kind on any occasion. But this was nothing to do with love or relationships; I simply wanted the things! In our house (genuine thanks mum!) Christmas was a massive gift-fest for me and I got so many things that I loved. I have particularly fond memories of new books that smelled of soap as well as their lovely new-book smell because they had lain next to the soap-on-a-rope for six weeks in the pillowcase that was used to deliver my gifts!

    I never understood why we sent cards to people who knew that we loved them and would be told as much, in person, on the day. I wasn’t interested in opening my own cards for the same reason.

    But as an adult, this all ceased to make any sense. If there was something that I wanted and didn’t already have, that was because it was either too expensive for me to buy or because I hadn’t finished researching it yet. Given that I had as much (or more) disposable income than anyone who might want to buy me a gift, and was certainly more expert in the research department, I’d much rather buy my own than have someone else buy me a cheap imitation of what I really wanted.

    I did try my best to recreate the joy I had as a child at Christmas and Birthday times for my own children. I did try, honestly.

    And I *do* enjoy the occasion of Christmas, especially since living with my wife Lynn who finds the magic of it all consuming. Her joy has rubbed off on me and reminded me of the joy I had as a child. But for me now, that joy is about the lights and the decorations rather than cards, presents, and socialising.

    But for adult to adult relationships, I just ceased to “get” the logic of buying somebody a gift and/or card *because it’s a certain day*. Far more meaningful are the gifts (and cards) that I’ve received and given unexpectedly. The sense of obligation to a calendar sucks the joy out of it and adds heaps of stress for me. However much I’ve tried, I’ve always forgotten at least one thing; usually something like the card from the dog to my parent’s dog. And I’ve been judged as stupid, forgetful and uncaring because of it.

    So I’ve lived many decades of my life inauthentically, grudgingly trudging to the shops to tick the boxes. Thankfully I’ve finally reached a stage where extended family have got bored with sending cards and closer family have accepted that I’m genuinely happier having nothing to do with it all. And it makes economic sense for all of us. (Gift exchange is economically inefficient. Yes that’s a defined term in economics. Yes I’m fun at parties.)

    I know that we don’t hold the character Sheldon Cooper up as an icon for autism, but his rant about gift giving is just on the nail:

    Sheldon: Oh, Penny. I know you think you are being generous, but the foundation of gift giving is reciprocity. You haven't given me a gift. You've given me an obligation.
    
    Howard: Don't feel bad, Penny, it's a classic rookie mistake. My first Hanukah with Sheldon, he yelled at me for eight nights.
    
    Penny: Now, hey, it's okay. You don't have to get me anything in return.
    
    Sheldon: Of course I do. The essence of the custom is that I now have to go out and purchase for you a gift of commensurate value and representing the same perceived level of friendship as that represented by the gift you've given me. It's no wonder suicide rates skyrocket this time of year.
    
    Penny: Okay, you know what? Forget it. I'm not giving you a present.
    
    Sheldon: No, it's too late. I see it. That elf sticker says, "To Sheldon." The die has been cast. The moving finger has writ. Hannibal has crossed the alps.
    

    The pushback: “But think how much the other person loves to get a card (and present) from you!” Yes, I understand that. But I also have to balance it against the amount of stress caused to me by forcing myself into behaviours that don’t come naturally to me. Sometimes I have written cards and wrapped presents with my hands literally shaking because of the anxiety and the resentment that feeling forced has caused me, because I want to do a “nice thing” when I feel moved to, not because of a calendar date. And the obligations of calendar dates come around too quickly to ever give me a chance to express authentic love and affection by sending a gift or a card out of my own free will.