Autism and Challenge

Last September I was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder level one, a lifelong neurodevelopmental disability. This is the ‘mildest level’ and is given to people who can cope with some situations so well that others do not know there is a difference in the way they process information, but once they get to know them, and see them in more challenging situations, notice the differences.

I was told that it is possible to ‘move up and down the levels’. Although I have never been at a level where I need a support worker, it has certainly been the case that I have moved up and down level one – had some phases in my life where I have felt almost neurotypical and others when I’ve felt very autistic.

I have noticed this most acutely in my response to challenge and what constitutes a challenge. Many easy, everyday activities, which are not challenging for a neurotypical person are often very challenging for an autistic person. This is due to a combination of sensory sensitivity and the anxiety that comes from difficulties with interpreting social signals and processing complex information from multiple sources at once.

I hit my lowest level in my early twenties when I was in the second year of university when I had what I believe, looking back, to be an autistic meltdown. This was brought on by the combination of the pressures of achieving a good degree and by poor lifestyle choices – going out drinking and taking drugs two or three times nights a week disrupted my sleep pattern and left me with insomnia, anxiety, and experiences of derealisation.

A massive panic attack on the motorway led me to give up driving. It was a challenge to get out of the house, onto the bus, and to university. I sat at the back in lectures, crying quietly, silent tears running down my face. Everything, everyone, was threatening. When I talked to my lecturers I felt so panicky and light-headed I thought I was going to faint or float away. One day I sat alone staring at a tomato on my sandwich unable to recall what it was.

Nobody noticed. When I had occasional sobbing fits or freaked out about something the response of my ‘friends’ was ‘Lorna’s going west again.’

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Eventually I sought help. I had a good doctor. We worked out that sleeping tablets and beta blockers weren’t helpful for my insomnia or panic attacks. I got put on a medication called Venlafaxine that helped regulate my sleeping patterns and mood and allowed me to establish a healthy sleep and exercise regime.

Unfortunately, when I was referred to a psychiatrist, I was told I wasn’t eligible for treatment because I hadn’t attempted suicide, in spite of self-harming.

Luckily the medication and developing a good routine helped (it was also helpful that I couldn’t drink on Venflaxine!). I ‘got better’ and, in my third year, got 80% in my dissertation, resulting in a first class degree in Philosophy and English.

Since coming off medication I have had many ups and downs. Sleep and exercise have been the key to leading a near-normal life, but I have been unable to overcome a number of challenges that neurotypical people can handle.

I failed to cope with working nearly full-time at the same time as studying for a PhD (as I didn’t get funding). When I worked as a groom I struggled with six day weeks, late nights and early mornings, and the stress of preparing for competitions.

During the period I moved back in with my parents and devoted my time to my spiritual path and writing, at some points working part-time and at some not at all, I was able to live by my ideal routine, getting up early, doing my devotions, writing, exercising, gardening, early bed. But the benefits of this lifestyle were overshadowed by my anxieties about my inability to make a living.

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When I realised I would never be able to make a living from my writing I turned to conservation, as something I’d volunteered in, and believed in. Slowly I took the steps, faced the challenges, of progressing from a volunteer, to a volunteer intern, to a trainee, before moving into ecology.

As an autistic person every new thing was challenging – travelling to a new place, meeting a new group, learning a new task or to use a new tool. On my first day as an intern at Brockholes I was terrified of using a radio due to how self conscious I felt about my voice and of losing the key to the tool cabin.

With support I progressed to being able to do most of the tasks needed for the smooth running of LWT’s flagship reserve including driving the pick-up (which I was, at first, extremely nervous about reversing due to poor spatial awareness).

It helped that I figured out I was autistic when I was in counselling for anxiety at this point, so was able to locate the root of my limitations and explain them to the reserve officers, who were both supportive and understanding.

My traineeship with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust on the Manchester mosslands was even more challenging not only due to the long drive but to stepping up from a volunteer into a paid role and taking on more responsibility.

I faced and overcame a number of challenges such as leading volunteer work parties and AQAs, passing machinery tickets, and carrying out surveys. I coped because I was open with my line manager about my autism and he gave me a manageable workload and a regular routine.

Completing my traineeship gave me a lot more confidence and led to me gaining a new job as a graduate ecologist at a local ecological consultancy. This job has brought its own challenges – new surveys, new vans to drive, driving to new places, and, again, my manager and my colleagues have been very understanding about my autism and allowed me to tackle one thing at a time.

The thing I have found most difficult, which surprised me at first, but shouldn’t have done looking back, has been dealing with night work. During my traineeship I had a fixed routine of getting up at 4.30am, doing my devotions and meditation, exercising, then working five hours onsite and two and a half hours admin from home flexibly, eating, bathing, studying and/or writing and getting to sleep by 8.30pm.

Going out to do great crested newt surveys when I would be going to bed and getting in a few hours after my bed time has been draining and disorientating. The next day and, for a couple of days afterwards, I’ve not only felt tired but been in a low mood and had trouble concentrating and with fending off negative thoughts that don’t usually come through when I’ve had eight hours sleep.

It has been a blessing to be part of a team who are very aware about mental health. I have told my manager how important both sleep and exercise are to maintaining my mental health and we have agreed that I never need to start earlier than 8am, so I can get my exercise in, and I can do only one night a week. In a profession in which night work is central I am very grateful for this.

In the couple of months I have been at Ecology Services Ltd I have not only learnt to carry out surveys, but the process from start to finish, from speaking to a client, setting up a quote, organising the survey, doing it, and writing a report, and found a great deal of pride in doing the job and doing it well.

At present I’m coping and feel like I’ve grown in confidence quite a lot. However, I am apprehensive about the fact that the nights are getting longer and that bat season, the busiest time of the year, is approaching. I am hoping that, with continued support, I will be able to make it through the summer.

Moving Forward

The rain falls. The leaves fall. Trampled underfoot they turn to mulch. They squelch beneath my trainers. As again I run past the man from across the road with the black Labrador and walking stick he says, “You’re going round in circles”. It’s necessary for a run to be a circle leading from home and back again and it can be made of smaller circles – same place, different time, a little further ahead.

Running’s simpler than writing. You know through sheer perseverance, putting one foot in front of the other, breath by breath, you can achieve that goal of going a little further, a little faster each week. It’s similar with Taekwondo. Turn up, train hard, you’ll progress through the belts. Although, of course, there are limits. As an injury prone thirty-eight year old a half marathon in 2hrs 10mins has proved to be my threshold and I doubt I’ll have the flexibility and bounce to get beyond Second Dan.

Writing’s trickier. Hours put in and perseverance are no guarantee one’s work will be any better. I completed my two best poems in 2012 when I was new to poetry and polytheism and riding a wave of excitement and inspiration. ‘Proud of Preston’ and ‘The Bull of Conflict’ were gifts from my gods.

The awen, the divine breath of inspiration, no matter how much one chants, does not come on command but flows to those who are in the right time and place and ready to do the work. There are no check points, no belts, only that shiver of beauty and truth, which is confirmed by the reactions of others. I believe this sense of awe can be found in the three books I’ve published. It was felt when I read the poems and stories back to my gods and to the land and when I’ve shared them in public.

Since my completion of Gatherer of Souls I’ve been slogging my guts out trying to find a new and original take on the Brythonic myths and failed because in doing so I only made them more inaccessible. My quest to explore Annwn and share my findings resulted in fragmentary obscure visions. I seemed to have hit a limit and the lack of awen signalled I was heading in the wrong direction.

This was made worse because I was trapped in the vicious circle (“you’re going round in circles!”) of working in a supermarket job I could not leave until I’d found a way to make a living from my writing yet being in that trap, and it making me miserable, was depriving me of the inspiration to escape.

I’ve been here in the past, to break that circle, only to enter a wider one circling it. I give up a job in order to put all my best efforts into my writing in the hope this time round I’ll succeed in making a living from it, fail, go back to another job, then in six months to a year’s time I’m quitting again – same place, different time, only a little further ahead.

Greencroft Valley October 2019

This all came to a head when I decided to try writing fantasy because it sells better than poetry and polytheism. Whilst attempting to dream up a fantastical wetland I killed a dragonfly on the way to a real one.

It was a wake-up call on many levels. It showed me I wasn’t listening to the land. This was partly because I was trying to imagine up a fantasy novel rather than focusing on the living beings around me. On a deeper level it was because I was trapped in a vicious circle that had severed my connection.

Shortly afterwards two things happened at once. One bad – I had a horrendous night at work where I was stuck on the tills. They kept breaking down whenever I put potatoes on the scales and I had to move myself and all the customers onto the next one, then onto the next one, leaving a trail of broken tills.

One good – the episode with the dragonfly at Brockholes Nature Reserve prompted me to look at volunteering opportunities with the Lancashire Wildlife Trustand I was struck by the realisation this might be a way into paid work I enjoyed as well as a way of reconnecting with and giving back to the land.

Finally I divined a way of breaking out of both circles. Firstly by starting volunteering as a way into a job I will stick at due to its importance in this time of climate crisis and because it is a way of serving the land and my gods. Secondly by giving up the illusion I will ever make a living from the type of writing my vocation calls for.

So I’ve handed in my notice at work and am starting volunteering with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust on the Woodland Oasis and Carbon Landscapes projects. Both fit really well with my values because they involve restoring wild landscapes and connecting people with the land. The latter provides training qualifications in ‘carbon skills’ and it’s looking possible I may be able to contribute some poetry as a way of inspiring others to love and be inspired by the land around them. I’m hoping such work will feed and nourish my creativity and lead to new unexpected avenues to explore.

At last I am moving forward onto a path that will be both materially and spiritually fulfilling.

Avenham Oct 2019