• 25 Things to Know About Autism and Christmas

    Autism Advent Calendar: 25 things to know about autism and Christmas

    Autism Advent Calendar: Things to Know About Autism and Christmas

    Christmas: love it or hate it, here in the UK, it’s at the forefront of life for a month (or more) each year. Everywhere you turn there are cards and carols, trinkets and tinsel, puddings and parcels and partridges in pear trees. For the whole of December, Christmas takes life as we know it and turns it upside down… and for an autistic person, this can be a huge adjustment.

    Autism is a lifelong developmental condition, characterised (among other things) by atypical social and communication skills, restrictive and repetitive interests, and sensory differences. Each of these facets can be impacted by Christmas at different times, in very different ways, varying widely from person to person. Our Autism Advent Calendar outlines 25 things to know about autism and Christmas:

    1. Autism and Fairy Lights

    Fairy lights (or Christmas lights) are a big part of the general merriment of Christmas; but they can provoke a more intense reaction in autistic people. Some of us become overwhelmed by bright lights, whilst others find them a source of intense joy. Autistic people who are visual sensory seekers can take huge pleasure in fairy lights, even more so than neurotypical people.

    2. Autism and Holiday Rituals

    Many people have rituals surrounding Christmas, but for autistic people, these can be hugely important. We find great comfort in structure and routine, and some of us have carried out the same specific Christmas rituals for years. 

    This can be harmless, but becomes problematic if we are inflexible and unable to accept even minor and/or necessary changes. For example, if we are used to spending Christmas day with a family member, and that family member moves house, that change might upend our entire Christmas experience.

    3. Autism and Christmas Jumpers

    We all have a Christmas jumper that gets pulled out from the back of the wardrobe in December. Love them or hate them, for autistic people, sensory issues can play a huge part in our feelings toward the Christmas jumper. Textures like wool can be especially aggravating to those who are hypersensitive to clothing; however, their baggy cut can be a dream come true for autistic people who prefer loose clothing. Even those who like compression from their clothes have the option to wear something underneath, so it’s a win-win in that regard. 

    Personally, I dread the month of Christmas jumpers, because it means re-working my entire wardrobe. Despite what you might believe, personal style can be hugely important to autistic people, and wearing something bright and ‘silly’ like a Christmas jumper can make us horribly self-conscious. Not to mention, branching out from our everyday clothing repertoire to wear something ‘different’ is rarely something we enjoy.

    4. Autism and the ‘Christmas Do’

    Whether it’s work, school or family, the month of December usually comes with a tidal wave of parties and social events. Contrary to popular belief, many autistic people enjoy parties; and having a full calendar can be an especially welcome sight to people who have both autism and ADHD, who might require more constant stimulation.

    However, a lot of us come to dread the onslaught of parties. The chaos and noise (bonus points if there are balloons) can be hell on the senses, and the pressure of socialising can overshadow any enjoyment we might otherwise get out of the experience. The ‘Work Do’ can be especially stressful, as it involves adjusting our demeanour, ‘letting loose’ and having fun with people around whom we might usually be quite formal. Even if we enjoy partying with others, the proximity of one party to another can deny us the crucial ‘down time’ which many of us need to recover and recharge our social batteries.

    5. Autism and Reacting to Presents

    To a neurotypical person, this might seem like a pedantic and insignificant issue. But for an autistic person, the social pressure to ‘react right’ to a present can be crippling. Many of us struggle with being the centre of attention, so having all eyes on us as we peel off wrapping paper is an uncomfortable experience; and when the present itself emerges, it all comes to a head. 

    We know we have to look pleased, even if we’re not. But from heavy maskers to those with flat affects and blank expressions, autistic people tend to have a complicated relationship with portraying our emotions. For many of us, what we look like on the outside doesn’t always reflect what we feel on the inside. We can obsess over whether we look happy enough with our gift, or not even realise that we seem ungrateful or upset. 
    On the other hand, some of the most joyful reactions you will ever see is that of the autistic person who has just received exactly the thing they have always wanted. Some of us can’t help but wear our hearts on our sleeves, which can be a wonderful sight to behold when things go right.

    6. Autism and Sugar and Alcohol

    Christmas is typically a time of excess; more spending, more parties, and more food and drink than any other month of the year. General food issues aside, one of the more surprising autistic traits is being highly susceptible to the effects of consumable substances- for example, sugar and alcohol- than neurotypical people. 

    Some of us use this to our advantage; one whiff of hard spirits and suddenly we’re the life of the office Christmas party. But when a little goes a long way, self-medicating social anxiety with alcohol can be a very dangerous thing. And for younger neurodivergents (and us adults who like chocolate more than we should), the Christmas day sugar indulgence inevitably leads to a sugar crash, which can exacerbate any burnout we may already be dealing with.

    7. Autism and Christmas Shopping

    There are two kinds of people; those who love Christmas shopping, and those who feel a chasm of dread open in their stomach at the very mention of Primark. Though not all autistic people dislike shopping, the very nature of the Christmas period adds layers to the experience which we are likely to find challenging. 

    Firstly, shopping in December can be a sensory hell. Moving from the freezing cold outdoors to the sweltering hot shop interior (and who actually takes their coats off to shop?), the crowds of people, the repetitive music, the piles of discarded clothing and pastel Secret Santa toiletries clogging up the aisles. If the scene described made you panic a little, then congratulations; you may be one of us. 

    Aside from this, the act of Christmas shopping can be hugely overwhelming for an autistic person. We often have difficulty with things like choice, so being presented with the same item in six different colours can be paralysingly stressful. We can struggle with queues, which tend to be miles long at this time of year, and these pressures combined with sensory overload can very quickly lead to a meltdown. And that is the last thing you want to happen in a packed shop.

    8. Autism and Burnout

    Most people will experience burnout at some point in their lives; but autistic burnout can not only be more frequent, but more debilitating. And Christmas just so happens to create the perfect conditions for it. 

    The weeks leading up to Christmas and the New Year can often bring a new social event every week, if not every day. Some autistic people are social butterflies, and thrive with a full calendar; but many of us struggle with the lack of down time needed to re-charge our social batteries. This is only exacerbated if you are a people-pleaser, which many high-masking autistic people tend to be. We might say yes to every single thing we’re invited to, even if we know full well it’s going to wear us down. 

    Burnout is not only caused by frequent socialising, but the nature of that socialising; for example, high-pressure situations where you have to be cheerful and react appropriately to presents, or having to converse politely with some distant aunt who has far more opinions about your life than she should. We can also experience burnout from pushing ourselves too hard; so the never ending to-do list of buying presents, wrapping presents, putting the tree up, watching the school concert and making gingerbread men can have a long-lasting effect on our wellbeing. 

    It’s easier said than done, I know. But this Christmas, try and slow down a bit.

    9. Autism and Christmas Dinner

    For many people, neurotypical or neurodivergent, the thought of Christmas dinner is enough to fill us with longing. But if there’s one thing that tends to unite autistic people, it is that we have big opinions about our food. 

    There’s no one-rule-fits-all when it comes to autism and food; however, some common preferences are making sure food doesn’t touch, having a specific order to eat things in, using particular utensils, and preferring a ‘beige diet’ (plain carbohydrates). This can sometimes be tricky with Christmas dinner, which involves a lot of different components, including liquids like gravy and cranberry sauce. Even if we like a certain food, we may only like it made by a particular person or to a particular recipe (when I was younger I only liked carrots when my Gran made them, and absolutely would not eat anyone else’s). This can quite easily cause the chef some offence, especially if we struggle to communicate our preferences tactfully. 

    Food aside, Christmas dinner is usually a highly social occasion, which can be stressful in itself. We have to concentrate on making polite small talk whilst also concentrating on eating (no I don’t care that I’m not holding my fork properly); and on top of that, many of us live with the co morbid condition misophonia, or hypersensitivity to certain sounds. So if you want to lash out with the carving knife when you hear someone chewing with their mouth open, you’re not the only one.

    10. Autism and Religion

    Whilst Christmas these days has drifted away from religion, it is still a factor that crops up here and there. Every autistic person will have a different attitude towards organised religion, but it can be common to flock to the extremes: to love it, or to hate it. 

    Some autistic people can struggle to understand the concept of an ideology which cannot be proven with factual evidence. We tend to think in black and white terms; things are either right or wrong, and if we can’t find the logic to prove it right, it therefore must be wrong. Though not always the case, we can also be less likely to find comfort in the elements of religion which are designed to be comforting (e.g. the afterlife). Our communication differences mean we can sometimes be a little blunt, which can be an issue when discussing emotive topics like religion. Essentially, we’re not always the most tactful of people. 

    On the other hand, some autistic people thrive within religious communities due to their emphasis on ritual and tradition. It can be easy to hide our idiosyncrasies in circles which are underpinned by rules; we don’t have to worry about how to act and what to say when we can default to such a massive mutual interest as religion. Some autistic people even develop a special interest in a specific religion or philosophy.

    11. Autism and Gift Giving

    ‘Christmas isn’t about presents’, proclaims Nan over her fifth glass of sherry. You nod politely; but you also know that Nan is full of sh*t, and that Christmas is absolutely about presents. And finding the right present for someone is hard

    We’ve already talked about the hellscape that is Christmas shopping; but even before we step onto the high street, autistic people can have difficulty coming up with gift ideas. We can put far too much pressure on ourselves to get the ‘right’ gift; or we can stray to the other extreme, and not regard it as a priority. Executive functioning issues mean that we can easily forget about buying presents, or leave it too late. On a much broader scale, disabled people earn on average £3,731 less annual pay than non-disabled people, meaning that we may have far less disposable income to spend on presents. 

    On the bright side, Christmas presents align perfectly with the autistic phenomenon of ‘pebbling’. Named after the act whereby penguins give pebbles to other penguins they like, many autistic people show affection by giving thoughtful, nuanced gifts to their loved ones, and derive great satisfaction and happiness from doing so.

    12. Autism and Loneliness

    Christmas is a time when friends and family get together to enjoy each other’s company; and this can be incredibly difficult for those who have little in the way of either. Though autistic people can have extensive social circles, many of us struggle to make and even to retain friends, and so we might have fewer invites to Christmas parties than our neurotypical counterparts. Seeing practically everyone around us making merry with their loved ones, can make our own isolation sting all the more keenly. 

    Even if we do have people to spend Christmas with, the feeling of loneliness can be just as hard as the reality. Many of us can feel disjointed and misunderstood, somehow out of step with the rest of the world; we think differently, we act differently, and nobody seems to understand us. Perhaps we have to mask around our extended family to get through dinner, and present a face which is not ours. Perhaps we drink to survive the office Christmas party, and perhaps these people wouldn’t enjoy our company if we were our true selves. These thoughts can manifest in feelings of intense loneliness, even in a room full of people.

    13. Autism and Expectations and Letdowns

    Do you ever find yourself really looking forward to an event, and then the big day arrives, and you feel sort of… deflated? Being disappointed by something not living up to our expectations can be a particular issue for autistic people, as our expectations tend to be so specific. Christmas is a perfect example of this; we have our rituals and our traditions, our annual customs which have to go exactly the way we want them to or it’s the end of the world. Of course, things rarely go exactly to plan. So Christmas day can often prove a disappointment to some degree. 

    Christmas burnout can be a huge factor behind this. We tend to forget how run-down we ended up the year before, and therefore don’t anticipate it happening again. And it’s hard to properly enjoy ourselves when we’re secretly just longing for bed.

    14. Autism and Hugs and Kisses

    Physical affection can be a notorious pitfall for autistic people. Though not always the case, many of us have a complicated relationship with physical endearment; we can find it too intense, too complicated, or even painful at times. This could be the result of sensory issues, having difficulty with the physical sensation of touching another person, be it skin texture, deep pressure, etc. 

    There is also a significant social pressure involved in physical affection. In the Christmas family gathering, for example, working out who to hug and who to offer an awkward smile-and-nod can be a minefield. Do you kiss your grandmother on the cheek, or kiss the air next to it? Has your teenage cousin aged out of tolerating an awkward one-armed hug? God forbid we should engage in anything but a strong handshake with that one uncle. Perhaps if our relatives came with a traffic light system of who to hug and who not to hug, we might have an easier time with physical affection; and perhaps it would make us uncomfortable regardless.

    15. Autism and Christmas Music

    Christmas music is a polarising topic within any demographic, let alone autistic people. On the one hand, it can sync perfectly with the autistic need for repetition; it’s the same handful of songs every year, give or take a few additions and covers (which even the  neurotypical population seems to groan about). Like all that is sparkly and magical about the festive season, Christmas music is something which can easily spark autistic joy, and is a great way to connect with others and feel truly ‘in the moment’. 

    However, if we aren’t fans of Christmas music, its oppressive presence throughout December can have a more harmful effect on us than you might realise. Our sensory sensitivities might mean that Mariah Carey shrieking down the tannoys at Tesco for the tenth time that week might not just be irritating, but physically painful, depending on the volume, playback quality, etc.

    16. Autism and Endings

    Though they are technically separate entities, Christmas and the New Year are often interlinked in our collective psyche; and so too is the concept of ending. This can be a point of significant emotion for everybody; and for many autistic people, endings are something with which we struggle hugely. 

    For one thing, ending something implies that it is complete; and as discussed, we can often feel let down or wanting more if our experience of an event (e.g. Christmas) didn’t live up to our expectations. The end means the experience is over, and there is no further opportunity to do it right. This can sometimes translate to an intense, and often unrealistic desire for closure. 

    Secondly, endings often denote a degree of emotion which may make us uncomfortable, either others’ or our own. For example, at the strike of midnight on New Year’s Eve, we might find a room full of singing, hugging and crying people to be utterly overwhelming; or we might find our own reflections upon the year gone to be ‘too much’ for us to linger on. Moreover, an ending means a new beginning; and this can be a huge source of anxiety for autistic people in itself.

    17. Autism and Community

    Whether we mean a large, established community like a church or a school, or a more informal one like a friendship group or family, this is a concept which is highlighted significantly by Christmas. There seem to be groups of people wherever we go; from the choir in the shopping centre, to the Secret Santa groups, to the teams in the festive pub quiz. 
    Despite its strengths, being autistic can sometimes be incredibly isolating, especially if you do not engage with many (or any) other autistic people. We may feel fully in sync with the neurotypical population; but, more often than not, we can have the feeling of being an alien stranded on earth, desperately trying to blend in. Being surrounded by communities might not only emphasise our loneliness, but our lack of belonging, in a world that was never really made for us.

    18. Autism and New Things

    Though a Christmas present can be anything from a gift card to money to concert tickets, it is almost inevitable that December will bring an influx of stuff. Secret Santas, stocking fillers, socks and aftershave and bath bombs; and no matter how grateful you may be for the sentiment, you will inevitably end up with a sackful of items you have no idea what to do with. 

    Due to our affinity with patterns and order, autistic people tend to prefer their spaces to be organised in a very particular way; therefore an influx of clutter can be very stressful for us. A messy room can be overstimulating, which, heaped on top of the usual Christmas burnout, can easily lead to a meltdown. 

    If we receive an item we could genuinely use, we may become anxious if we already have something filling the role of that item; for example, it took me years to come around to the idea that I could own more than one rucksack. Even if we specifically asked for a new item, our anthropomorphising of inanimate objects (assigning it human traits and feelings) means we can find it difficult to replace an existing possession, even if it is old or broken.

    19. Autism and House Guests

    Every household has a different setup for Christmas day, and for some, this will mean welcoming friends and family into their homes. We’ve already discussed the complex relationship between autism and socialising; but when it comes to house guests, the social pressure has an entirely new dimension to contend with. 

    Depending on how long the guests are due to stay, our socialising skills (and enjoyment) can be significantly tested when there is no definitive end in sight, or when that end is far away. Autistic people are often better at and get more pleasure out of socialising when they see it as a temporary state, and know that they can escape when they need to; but when the socialising is happening in your own home, not only is it harder to get away from, but the haven to which you would usually retreat becomes the very place that you need to escape.

    Autistic people can also often have a harder time sharing our spaces than our neurotypical peers. We tend to have strong feelings as to how things should be- which mug should be used for which beverage, which TV channel should be watched with breakfast, which way round the toilet roll should go- and can really struggle if our routines and surroundings are altered. We can also have a hard time sharing our personal possessions with others, even seemingly insignificant things like cutlery and bedding.

    20. Autism and Money

    Although there are many ways to pull off Christmas on a budget, it is typically a time of enormous expense. Presents, party clothes, food, drinks and events; chances are if you want to participate, you’re going to have to put your hand in your pocket. 

    Whilst autism doesn’t necessarily equate to less money, it can have a significant impact on our finances. As with any disability, being autistic can incur expenses which neurotypical people don’t have to pay; specific clothing, sensory items, access to quiet spaces in events, etc. A more significant issue is our ability to earn money; we may only be able to work part time or temporarily, or be unable to work at all, and schemes like the Personal Independence Payment are notoriously difficult for those with hidden disabilities to obtain. On average, disabled people earn 17% less annual pay than non-disabled people, which increases to 33.5% for disabled people. We may be unable to buy the quantity or quality of Christmas gifts that we would like, or have to pass on events because we can’t afford them; and this can hugely increase our isolation and perception as ‘outsiders’.

    21. Autism and Extended Family

    If there’s ever a time for getting together with distant relatives, it’s Christmas. Whilst we might be excited to see our favourite cousins and wine aunts and crotchety old grandpas, autistic people in particular can have a hard time when it comes to extended family, and other ‘surface-level’ relationships. 

    Besides the usual anxieties that can come with socialising, it can be difficult to navigate a person whom we might only see briefly here and there, yet with whom we are expected to form a genuine and meaningful relationship. Many autistic people require a substantial amount of time, shared experiences and mutual interests before they truly feel comfortable around a person. 

    We can also struggle to moderate our characteristics to be palatable to a particular social dynamic; for example, if we swear and blaspheme in front of our friends, we might find it impossible not to swear and blaspheme in front of Grandma. Some of us swing the other way, switching our personalities like pairs of socks to suit every new person we come into contact with; but this is a form of masking, and is likely to contribute to burnout in the long run. Essentially, we can choose between keeping the peace at the expense of our mental health, or being misunderstood, ostracised or openly criticised for being ourselves. 

    On a lighter note, ‘face-blindness’ is a phenomenon which disproportionately affects neurodivergent people; so if your autistic uncle absolutely never gets your name right, try not to take it personally.

    22. Autism and Commercialism

    If you roll your eyes every time you hear about how commercialised Christmas is nowadays, then you’re not the only one. The festive season seems to divide people into two camps: the Christmas-lovers, and the grinches. Whilst autistic people are not necessarily more likely to fall into the latter camp, we may be less interested in adhering to social trends that commercialism caters to; for example, sending Christmas cards. 

    We may also be far more vocal about these discrepancies than our neurotypical counterparts. This could be for several reasons; for one, we tend to feel very passionately about the political stances we take, so if (for example) we think wrapping paper is bad for the environment, we may feel strongly compelled to convince those around us. Furthermore, our communication differences mean that if a person is becoming bored or disgruntled with our preaching, we might not be able to read this in their body language.

    23. Autism and Winter Weather

    Sadly, the classic Christmas snow we see in ornaments and greetings cards are largely a thing of the past. Nevertheless, December is usually a very cold, dark, wet time of year, and this can impact autistic people in several ways. One thing we can have trouble with is temperature regulation; this means that our bodies do not naturally adjust our temperatures to compensate for our surroundings, so if the space we’re in is cold, we can become very cold. 

    On top of this, we can also be hyper or hyposensitive to temperature. This will be different for each individual, and can range from us feeling cold to the point of physical pain, to not feeling it at all, despite our bodies still being cold. Being hyposensitive to temperature can quickly become dangerous if we do not realise we are getting too cold, and may become ill as a result. This can be exacerbated if we have issues with changing our clothing to suit weather conditions. Autistic people are also more susceptible to mental health issues like SAD- or Seasonal Affective Disorder- which rears its ugly head during the long winter nights.

    24. Autism and Making things

    Dated as it may sound, Christmas crafts are not entirely a thing of the past. With wreath-making classes on the up, and handmade gifts greatly cherished and appreciated, Christmas can be a brilliant time for us creative folk to put our pencils/paint brushes/potter’s wheels/crochet hooks to good use. And contrary to the stereotype, autistic people can be incredibly creative. 

    Whilst there are indeed autistic people for whom imagination is not their strong suit, many of us excel in a specific creative craft, hyperfocusing on said craft for hours on end until we are all but experts. This means that, not only can we hand out unique handmade gifts to our loved ones, but they can often be of a high enough quality to rival- or even surpass- something which we could have bought in a shop. There is also the added benefit of deriving great enjoyment and satisfaction from engaging in our chosen craft, which is especially helpful at a hectic time of year like Christmas. At its best, making things can actually take significant steps to reverse the effects of burnout.

    25. Autism and Christmas Trees

    Christmas trees are a traditional festive staple, brought over from Germany in the 19th Century. Every household has opinions about when to put them up, whether to go real or artificial, what colour lights to use; and us autistic people certainly hold fast to those opinions. The Christmas tree can be one of those traditions which are incredibly important to us, and one askew ornament or misplaced bauble can make us surprisingly distressed. 

    In addition to this, Christmas trees are hugely sensory objects. As with fairy lights, this can have a vastly different effect from person to person, depending on whether we are visual sensory seekers or avoiders. They can be an assault on the senses, or they can be a source of intense joy; or perhaps, neither of the above.

    Autism and Christmas – Summary

    Autistic people are every bit as unique and varied as neurotypical people; and like neurotypical people, we all have a different relationship with the festive season. This Christmas, try to spread goodwill to all mankind by being patient and understanding, and remembering that it’s our quirks and idiosyncrasies which make us human. Merry Christmas, and a happy New Year!

  • 10 Childhood Traits You Didn’t Know Were Autism

    10 Childhood Traits You didn't Know Were Autism

    10 Childhood Autism Traits

    Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition which is present from birth. You can’t catch it, it doesn’t grow out of nowhere, although it might become more visible as the autistic person grows older. If you pursue a medical diagnosis, there is a huge emphasis on childhood behaviour, and how your autism might have presented itself.

    Being a late-diagnosed autistic doesn’t mean I just ‘developed’ autism at the age of 25. I was born with it; and unbeknownst to me, I had been exhibiting signs of autism all my life. Looking back, I am now able to dissect my past, and understand which behaviours might have been influenced by being autistic. So, here are 10 childhood traits I didn’t know were autism: 

    Autistic Childhood Trait #1 – Nail Biting

    I remember the adults around me going crazy trying to stop me biting my nails.”It’s bad for you”, “I’ll put bad-tasting polish on them”, “you won’t be able to paint them for parties”… I heard it all. But despite their best efforts, I still bite my nails now, and have never once mourned my lack of nail varnish. 

    I found out later that nail biting is a form of oral stimming. Perhaps this is where we get the idea that people bite their nails when they are nervous; a key purpose of stimming is to regulate emotion, including anxiety and distress. Not that I reserve nail-biting for when I’m anxious; I do it instinctively, no matter how I feel.

    Autistic Childhood Trait #2 – Being ‘The Shy Kid’

    I was that kid who had to have a parent stay with them in playgroup; who would only ever speak to the teachers; who dreaded being paired up with a stranger for groupwork. 

    My social anxiety and communication differences were present from a young age if you looked closely enough, although I didn’t even hear the term ‘social anxiety’ until secondary school. Moreover, because I was very articulate, nobody thought to question my communication skills. 

    I never grew out of being the shy kid. Nowadays, I do what every good introvert does, and use my chattier friends to communicate for me.

    Autistic Childhood Trait #3 – Doodling

    It annoyed me no end when I actually had to record a piece of homework or a parents’ evening in my school planner, and ruin my sea of gel pen flowers and fairies and spiders’ webs. Every blank sheet of paper I laid my hands on was soon littered with drawings, and if I didn’t have paper, I used my hands (yes, ink poisoning, I know). 

    Like many neurodivergent people, doing something with my hands helped me to concentrate; and despite being told off by some closed-minded teachers, I ended up putting my doodling to good use as I grew older. I got an A* in my art GCSE, I drew intricate mind maps for my A Level revision, and I even daydreamed about becoming a tattoo artist (shame that would require me to actually leave my house). 

    Now that I know I’m autistic, I’d like to go back in time and tell the teachers who stopped me doodling that they were actually hindering my focus, not helping it. As well as concentration, I think a huge driving force behind my need to draw was my vivid neurodivergent imagination. I may have been sitting in a damp, dull classroom, but I had entire worlds leaking out of my brain and onto the page before me.

    Autistic Childhood Trait #4 – Holiday Burnout

    I liked school; I liked the routine, the consistency, and the lessons which suited my academic little brain. I rarely missed a day. However, every half term and holiday without fail, I’d come down with some sort of head cold or stomach bug, or even just a ragingly bad mood. My parents called it ‘End of Term-Itus’. Adult, autistic me calls it ‘burnout’. 

    I liked school; but school didn’t always like me. I could never do any less than my best- as in, I didn’t have a mechanism that allowed for ‘just doing my homework’ as opposed to pouring my heart and soul into my homework- and this combined with the social pressure of dealing with my peers every day really took its toll. Sometimes the time off actually made things worse, especially at Christmas, an event which many autistic people struggle with (another topic for another day).

    So if you have a child who always seems to come down with something during half term- or if you are or were that child- try pencilling in some downtime. A good film day can do wonders; and a few preemptive breaks during term time could also make the world of difference. 

    Autistic Childhood Trait #5 – Outfit Repeating

    I remember years and events by whatever clothing phase I was going through at the time. 2006 was the year I wore a washed-out denim jacket in all weathers, and 2008 was the year of the knee-length stripey sock. In year 5, I would categorically only wear skirts to school; in year 6, it was nothing but trousers. I would latch onto a style or article of clothing, wear it every day like a cartoon character, and then abandon it forever.

    Whilst many children go through phases like this, being intensely attached to clothing (and other objects) is an autistic trait which I still carry to this day. It can be great to have such a strong sense of style; but it can also become an issue if we are unwilling- or unable- to adapt our clothing for things like the weather.

    Autistic Childhood Trait #6 – Throat Clearing

    To an outsider, it must have seemed like I grew up with a perpetual cold. I was always being told to stop clearing my throat and ‘just cough properly’, but for some reason I always found myself slipping back into my croaky little habits.

    At the time, I remember feeling an intense shame and self-consciousness around coughing. It made everyone look at you in class and assembly; and this social pressure to ‘fit in’, and hatred of feeling observed in any way, can indeed be traced back to autism. But there was also this weird physical compulsion; I had to clear my throat, and I had to do it a certain number of times before I could stop. Like nail-biting, this is a form of stimming, and can help to regulate an autistic person’s emotions. 

    I actually thought I’d grown out of throat clearing, until I saw it written in the notes for my autism assessment. It seems I croaked my way right into a diagnosis.

    Autistic Childhood Trait #7 – Sugar Rush

    I was that friend that only had to sniff a Haribo Tangfastic to bring the entire sleepover crashing down around us. As a child, I was hugely susceptible to the effects of sugar and caffeine; and when I got older, I became that friend who was a raging liability on a night out, because of how quickly I could get drunk. 

    Though the reasons why are still up for debate, it is largely believed that autistic people can be affected far more strongly by the substances we consume. My sister Emily had to have an entire culinary overhaul to remove additives, because of how significantly her diet was affecting her behaviour. This change in diet was the reason she was taken back off the autism waiting list as a child; because an accommodation made things better, so there no longer appeared to be a problem.

    Autistic Childhood Trait #8 – Hair Chewing

    My mother might as well have had the words “get your hair out of your mouth” tattooed across her forehead. I grew up with thick, waist-length hair, most of which ended up in my mouth at some point or other. I was gently reminded, sternly scolded, and presented with cautionary tales of people who had to get literal hair balls surgically removed from their stomachs, but to no avail. Once again, this is a case of oral stimming. 

    Unlike the nail-biting, I seemed to grow out of this one naturally. Nowadays if my hair goes anywhere near my mouth, the whiff of hair products is enough to make me swat it away without a second thought.

    Autistic Childhood Trait #9 – Living in a Fantasy

    If this one takes you by surprise, then you’re not alone. Our media is saturated with autistic people who love maths and science and train timetables, and there I was scribbling a new story in every blank notebook I laid my hands upon. A ‘special interest’ is a phenomenon whereby an autistic person becomes very invested in a hobby, topic or ‘thing’, and I certainly became invested in my fantasy worlds. Celtic druid, mediaeval outlaw, pirate; I was all of these things, at one time or another. You could not have convinced me differently.

    Contrary to the stereotype, it is not the nature of an interest, but the intensity, that might indicate autism. A child spending four hours pouring over a book in their room, forgetting to drink or go to the toilet or speak to their family, could potentially be an indication of autism; whether that book is about physics or fairies.

    Autistic Childhood Trait #10 – Eating Leaves

    Ah, the icing on the cake. This one is just exactly as it sounds; my best friend and I made it our mission to try all the different leaves in and around our primary school, and see how they compared. 

    I think this trait has really the trifecta of sensory, categorising and social influences. We would search for, examine and taste the leaves, before meticulously recording (verbally if not on paper) their distinctive qualities, how they compared to oak leaves, dandelion leaves, grass, etc. I do wonder if, by this point, I’d begun to regard myself as a bit of an outsider. I knew that eating leaves was strange, I knew what my peers would say if they found out. I’ve always leaned into my oddball status, perhaps as a way of stepping out of victimhood and taking ownership. You think I’m a weirdo? Good. I want to be.

    Eventually our teachers put a stop to our antics, which, having worked in primary schools myself, I totally understand. Nevertheless, I imagine we’d have grown out of it eventually. Eating non-edible things- or ‘pica’- is actually a common symptom of autism,  and most of us live to tell the tale. If you’re worried about your autistic child’s unusual habits, know that there is every chance they will leave them behind as they grow up; and that unless the habit is immediately harmful, it’s probably best to just leave them to it. 

    FYI, the middle of a daisy tastes awful, but the petals are fine. Just in case you were wondering.

    Autism in Childhood – Summary

    For a late-diagnosed autistic person, looking back and spotting autistic traits from before your diagnosis can be a life-long task. It ranges from joyful, to funny, to relieving, to upsetting; but no matter how you feel about it, there’s no turning away from the fact that all autistic adults were once autistic children. 

    It’s called the autism spectrum for a reason; my profile as an autistic child can look totally different to anothers’, and even my own autistic siblings were (and still are) vastly different from me growing up. That being said, if you or your child exhibit (or exhibited) traits like this, it might be worth exploring the topic of autism. Personally, I wish I’d known earlier that I was autistic; it would have made an enormous difference to my self-perception. And remember, autism isn’t bad- it’s just different.

    Autistic childhood traits you didn’t know were autism

  • Interview with Marcus Mason-Williams: Autistic Author, Artist and Business Owner

    Interview with Marcus Mason-Williams: Autistic author, artist and business owner

    Today we’re really excited to bring you an interview with Marcus Mason-Williams.

    Marcus is an artist and business owner. His art showcases his passion for wildlife and nature, and is influenced by his autism.

    You can check out our interview with Marcus below!

    Interview with Marcus Mason-Williams

    1. How long have you been creating art for? 

    My passion for drawing wildlife began when I was about 5 years old after being introduced to Henry Rousseau’s animal paintings.

    2. What inspires your art?   

    A lot of my artwork is inspired by my heroes Sir David Attenborough, Bill Oddie, Kate Humble, Chris Packham and other wildlife presenters.

    3. What made you want to create art as a business? 

    My first job was working for Kevin Barry Adams at the Glasshouse as a trainee crystal glass cutter – my nickname there was ‘Iceman’ due to the ice patterns I made. It was after this work experience that I decided to set up my own digital art business and with the help of Exceptional Minds (autistic animation studio) in the USA, learned how to use digital software to create my drawings, which are the designs you see on my website http://www.coolart2021.co.uk.

    4. What is your favourite thing being an entrepreneur?

    I am trying to be my very own boss and not having to please someone else’s boss. Not only has it allowed me to pursue my passion, but it has also opened up so many doors for me. I have worked with fellow Special Olympics GB athletes Michael Beynon and Niall Guite on the Unified Business project with Coca-Cola Europacific Partners and Special Olympics GB. I have had help from a number of mentors, including Ben Pearson from Big Clothing4U and Kellie Barker from Born Anxious, who both understand my autism. Through Kellie I have been introduced a well known artist called Dez Noi, LoveArtPix and we are working on a book project together. I love working with local people in the community. I sell my cards in my home village of Barnt Green, in our local gift shop and florists, and my work is displayed in the local dentist’s waiting room. My job allows me to work with nature too – at Wildgoose Rural Training, which I attend two days a week and act as a trainee nature reserve officer. This gives me inspiration. One of my pictures of a goldfinch was inspired by a sighting at the reserve. I also like talking to young people, especially those with special needs, about what they can achieve if given a chance. Recently I talked to students at Rigby Hall School as part of National Careers Week. It’s not about making money to me, it is about playing your part and trying to do what is best for the world.

    5. Have you worked with any big brands as part of your work? 

    I have been lucky to work with some big brands.I have had work experience with the design team at KPMG. I am being trained by Neil Kerber, a cartoonist with Private Eye and by Aaron Blaise, a Disney animator. I am being supported by Special Olympics GB, part of a large global charity. Through them I have worked with Coca-Cola Europacific Partners a number of media and PR companies. My first illustrated book, Zooland A Sign of Hope, was signed by Gareth Southgate (England Football Manager) and Steve Clarke (Scotland Football Manager). My customers include The Wildlife Trusts and The Rivers Trust. However, I love also being able to work with inspiring individuals, especially those like Dez and Kellie who understand my autism.

    6. Do you have any tips or advice for other autistic people wanting to create art as a business? 

    Be yourself. Focus on what you are good at and try and find friends and helpers to fix the gaps. It is not always about winning or losing it is about having fun, testing yourself and seeing if you have what it takes to go the distance. I have two sayings that inspire me:

    “This is not the finish line, my friends.  This is the start of the race.  The future is the finish line.  And our combined skills and geniuses, working together, are just the thing to get us there.”

    Jeff Bridges, Seabiscuit

    The second saying is:

    “It ain’t how hard you hit; it’s about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward. How much you can take, and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done.“

    Silvester Stallone, Rocky Balboa
  • ADHD Passion Projects

    ADHD Passion Projects

    ADHD Passion Projects Introduction – All The Gear, No Idea

    One of the symptoms of ADHD can be poor impulse control, and it’s very common for this to manifest itself in the form of hobbies.

    Many people have varying attitudes to hobbies, but for ADHD people it can be especially hard to hold down one hobby; that is, to stick to one thing for a prolonged period of time.

    The cycle is all too familiar for many of us with ADHD. A passion project is new and exciting; it offers us dopamine, the ‘feel-good’ drug. We invest in the tools to allow us to fully realise this hobby, often finding that through our hyperactivity we can pick things up quickly and become quite good, quite fast.

    And then the dopamine fades, the hobby feels more like a burdensome task than the dopamine-generator it was, and it slowly slips away. We do it less and less until it ends up completely forgotten, reduced to a sports kit crumpled at the back of the wardrobe, or a sewing machine gathering dust in the cupboard.

    Everything that I’ve quit on builds a sense of guilt that can exacerbate feelings of inadequacy.

    Mandatory Classes as a Child with ADHD

    When I was younger my father took me and my siblings to karate class.

    Every Tuesday we would all get in the car, and drive to karate for an hour karate class- whether I wanted to or not.

    I used to resent him for this; for taking up every Tuesday even when I was bored of karate and wanted to do something else. I had no choice but to get in the car and train for an hour a week, every week.

    Yet later in life I began to appreciate that consistency. More than that- I enjoyed being good at something. Through years of training and dedication, I was good at karate. When my hobbies were in my own hands, it was all too easy to quit; I never made it past Grade 5 violin, and I dropped rugby after we lost our second game.

    But quitting karate was never an option, and in the end I was grateful for it.

    Finding a Long Term Hobby Through My Own Accord

    This flash-in-the-pan hobby experience, however, can feel incredibly disheartening; my years spent on karate doesn’t change the disappointment I feel whenever I think of my many ‘failed’ passion projects. Everything that I’ve quit on builds a sense of guilt that can exacerbate feelings of inadequacy. I can get in my own head thinking I’ll never be good at playing an instrument whilst staring at a bookshelf full of sheet music. 

    However, whilst there’s no escaping the fact that my karate classes being mandatory was one of the main reasons I stuck with it for so long, I do feel a sense of pride when there is a hobby that I stick with long term through my own accord.

    I have been a dedicated ice hockey player for a number of years now since I started during university – and I don’t plan on quitting any time soon.

    The Financial Cost of ADHD Passion Projects

    There’s a financial element to this way of experiencing hobbies too.

    It is very common for ADHD people to struggle with their personal finances, often as poor impulse control and tunnel vision can blind you into spending money in the moment without thought for the consequences. You get a little interested in video games and before you know it, you own a PS5 and your bank account hates you for it.

    I can’t magically expand my attention span, and it’s no good trying to force myself to stick to things when I’m mentally done with them.

    Changing My Mindset – From ‘Failed’ to ‘Mastered’

    I can’t change my brain chemistry, and I can’t change my attitude to hobbies. I can’t magically expand my attention span, and it’s no good trying to force myself to stick to things when I’m mentally done with them.

    But why must all these hobbies be framed as ‘failures?’.

    Whilst I’m no longer running my small embroidery business, I made some truly beautiful embroideries. The bag of thread and hoops under my bed doesn’t need to be a hobby gravestone, but instead represent a craft that I picked up quickly, and worked on until I now have a skill I have been, and can be, proud of.

    An embroidery piece of a woman with an afro with flowers growing where her armpit hair would be
    A political/feminist embroidery piece I sold

    I’ve sworn off the stage since I played Madame Thenardier in Les Miserables, but I have photos and videos from a time when Musical Theatre was a big part of my life, and something to be proud of. And I can still project my voice louder than anyone I know; which comes in handy when I’m standing in net at the ice rink communicating to my team.

    The only thing that kept me sane through lockdown was sewing; I bought my first sewing machine and used to order colourful bed sheets on Ebay to turn into wacky outfits. I wasn’t perfect; I would cut corners, not bothering to hem or follow patterns properly. And although I may no longer fashion myself patchwork dungarees, I can fix the holes in my friend’s ice hockey kit.

    Abi wearing a handmade two-piece made from a bedsheet
    One of my handmade bedsheet outfits

    I see all these as skills that have been learnt or even mastered, and ones I can carry forward, rather than being down on myself and framing them as failures.

    Tips to Sticking Out a Hobby if You Have ADHD

    Maybe you can’t reconcile having brief and fleeting relationships with passion projects. Maybe that’s not an option for you- you need to stick something out.

    Below are some techniques to try and keep yourself at something.

    #1 Find Someone to Hold You Accountable

    One method is to get an accountability partner.

    You join something with that person, and hold each other accountable to make sure you go.

    My dad rounded me up every week and put me in the car to go to karate, and in later years my friend and I signed up to ice hockey together and walked together to the rink every week.

    Abi in her goalie kit on the ice
    My current hobby at five years and running- Ice Hockey

    #2 Attend An Organised Session (Rather Than Self Lead)

    Having an organised session for an individual hobby that you attend can also motivate you to push through any boredom or desire to quit.

    I’ve been trying to learn a language for years, but Duolingo doesn’t work for me; I forget and break my streak, and then what’s the point?

    But this year I have signed up for Welsh lessons, and having a class to attend every week stops me from giving up.

    Maybe signing yourself up to a book club will motivate you to finish a book. Or following a fitness programme that has live sessions you join will encourage you to get fit.

    Whatever it is, attending a session is sometimes easier to keep to than trying to be self lead.

    #3 Remove The Option To Quit

    Lastly, sometimes you’re likely to back out… Just because you can.

    If there is a (safe) way to remove the option to quit, then having that be beyond your control can work.

    Obviously tread carefully with this; forcing yourself through something can be rough but rewarding, but it can also be brutal to the point of not being worth it. 

    #4 Give Yourself a Time Frame to Not Feel Guilty

    Whilst you can use whatever method tricks your mind into sticking it out if you need to once you’ve started, remember that it’s not the end of the world to give up a hobby – especially if you stuck it out for a certain amount of time.

    It’s quite common to start something and then decide it’s not for you (how will you know if you like it unless you try it?), and sometimes leaving a passion project (especially one that consumes you) is a healthy, and maybe inevitable thing.

    So you can always set a time frame for giving this hobby a go – and if you don’t want to maintain it, then that’s okay. You did it for X amount of time, and that was enough for you.

    Remember the Positives, and Jump Into Your Passion Projects!

    Trying something new is fun, and being good at a hobby is rewarding.

    Passion projects can develop your skills and your social circles, and it can be a positive thing to have multiple. Look for the positives; you can be versatile with many skills and experiences under your belt.

    So do it; buy a tennis racket and join a film club and challenge your friends at board games. Go for it and embrace it.

    And when you can give people hand-made Christmas gifts, you’ll thank yourself!

  • Autistic-coded TV and film characters

    The 10 best autistic coded TV and film characters

    10 Autistic TV characters

    When we think of autism in TV and film, only a handful of characters spring to mind. There are classics like Rain Man, and a handful of new-age geniuses like  Dr. Shaun Murphy and Sheldon Cooper (who is ‘definitely not autistic, or ‘crazy’ as he so kindly puts it). The trouble is, these characters use a cookie-cutter mould to stamp out the same tired portrayals time and time again: the white male, the savant, the maths genius, the train-lover. In fact, these stereotypes are so tired and played out, that often a character doesn’t need to be explicitly stated as autistic for us to know that they are, because the habits they exhibit are so deeply ingrained in the wider societal perception of autism. Love trains and hate using public toilets? Sorry Sheldon, we know you’re one of us. 

    Autistic people who share these behaviours and experiences absolutely do exist, and they absolutely deserve representation. However, there are plenty of us who do not fit this mould, who have never seen our autism reflected in the media we consume, and who even begin to question our autism (or have it questioned by others) because we ‘don’t look autistic’ in the same way people on TV do. So what do we do when we can’t find intentional representation? We make our own, of course. 

    What are Autistic-Coded Characters?

    Coded characters- be it black-coded, LGBTQIA-coded, or autistic-coded- are characters that are never explicitly stated to belong to a certain group, but we can infer from their portrayal that they do. Sometimes this is fully intended by the creators, and sometimes it is not. In the case of the characters listed below, we see a range of people (and, um, bears) whose characteristics can be interpreted as autistic, or at least, have been interpreted as autistic by yours truly; people who I see myself in, or my siblings, or who exhibit some unnamed feeling or experience so perfectly that it sticks with me long after the film is done. This lengthy, opinionated essay is just that; my opinion. Please feel free to disagree. 

    So what are these autistic traits we’re on the lookout for? No two autistic people are the same, and it would be impossible to generate an exact specific formula for what makes a character autistic-coded. Broadly speaking, these characters all display a difficulty with socialising, differences in communication, unusual thought process, a strict adherence to structure and routine, a profound awareness of how they present to others, peer ostracisation, sensory differences and/or an atypical experience of empathy. So without further ado, here are ten autistic-coded TV and film characters. 

    Female Autistic Characters

    • Beth Harmon (‘The Queen’s Gambit’)
    • Anne Shirley-Cuthbert (‘Anne with an E’)
    • Wednesday Addams (‘Wednesday’)
    • Luna Lovegood (‘Harry Potter’)

    Beth Harmon (‘The Queen’s Gambit’)

    Beth Harmon is a young orphan girl in 1960s America, who grows up to become a world chess champion. Beth is portrayed as unusual right from the off; she is an awkward, sullen little girl, whose only real human connections are her friend Jolene, and the school’s aged caretaker Mr. Shaibel. After learning to play chess in the basement, she discovers that she has a flair for the game, and quickly surpasses all of the players in the area. 

    Chess soon comes to define Beth Harmon. She hyperfixates on it to an impressive degree, from zeroing in on her current game, to replaying previous games in her head as she lies awake at night. Having an interest which you prioritise to such an intense degree is a common autistic trait known as a ‘special interest’, and certainly describes Beth’s relationship with chess (and also fashion when she grows older). Autistic people often come to dominate a certain field in which they have a special interest; Beth’s world champion accolade is a striking (if extreme) example of this. 

    Chess can also be seen as a stereotypically autistic interest, revolving around logic and patterns. We see frequent displays of Beth’s thought process as she plays through her old chess games, moving imaginary pieces across her bedroom ceiling. This manner of thinking is unusual in how visual and flamboyant it is, and can perhaps be seen as a feature of autism. 

    Another autistic trait Beth displays, perhaps even more significant than her genius, is her difficulty with socialising. She struggles to connect with people her own age; her most meaningful relationships often develop with people much older than her (Shaibel, Alma), which is common for autistic children and teens. In school, she is bullied for her dated clothes and awkward manners, as well as her academic brilliance. There is one specific scene where Beth attends a social event with a group of popular girls (The Apple Pi’s). They giggle as they quiz her about chess, and Beth so clearly does not understand the social nuances of the situation. In the end, she steals a bottle of wine, and leaves early. 

    As she gets older, Beth comes to use sex as a crutch to bolster her friendships, the most significant being with Harry Beltik and Benny Watts. Many autistic teens and adults can fall into this habit; believe it or not, sexual relationships can often be far simpler to navigate than friendships. We can see throughout that Beth craves human connection in her own standoffish way; this comes out in moments like her elation when all her friends call to offer encouragement during the world championship, and her anguish upon realising how deeply Mr. Shaibel cared about her. In an interview with a reporter, Beth attributes her love of chess to how straightforward it is compared to the world around her: “It’s an entire world of just 64 squares. I feel safe in it. I can control it. I can dominate it. And it’s predictable, so if I get hurt, I only have myself to blame.”

    A further, darker display of Beth’s autism is her drug and alcohol addiction. Unfortunately, many autistic people also suffer with mental health issues, which can sometimes manifest themselves in drug dependency. Beth’s addiction can perhaps be tied in with her debilitating perfectionism, another common autistic attribute; as she tells Jolene when contemplating going to the world championship in Russia, “I have to go. If I don’t, there’s nothing for me to do. I’ll just drink.” Both of these things could also be connected to Beth’s early childhood, and her abandonment when her mother kills herself. There is a significant crossover in the characteristics of autism and childhood trauma, and we can only speculate as to where Beth’s issues come from. 

    Beth Harmon is one of my favourite depictions of autism to date. Her portrayal digs so deeply into her wonderful, complicated mind, her unadulterated love of chess, her crippling self-doubt and criticism, and her daunting quest to form genuine human relationships. Her addiction and her portrayal as sexually desirable, whilst frequently leading to problems, lift her out of the common trap of infantilizing autistic people. Beth ends the series as a strong, capable, attractive woman, with a host of meaningful friendships, and a chess world championship under her snow-white belt.

    Anne Shirley-Cuthbert (‘Anne with an E’)

    Anne Shirley-Cuthbert is the much-beloved heroine of the classic children’s novel ‘Anne of Green Gables’. She is an orphan living in turn-of-the-century Canada, who is mistakenly adopted by siblings Matthew and Marilla, and who turns their quiet farm upside down with her lively antics. 

    In the Netflix adaptation ‘Anne with an E’, the titular character has some significant autistic traits. An obvious example is her difficulty understanding and accepting social conventions; from her row with Mrs Lynd to her school misdemeanours, Anne not only struggles to recognise the rules that govern her society, but often riles against them when she does. Much like Beth Harmon, Anne has survived a traumatic childhood, which could also have influenced her social conduct. 

    She is also a character with, in her words, ‘Big Ideas’, which often have Big Feelings to go with them. Anne’s emotions ebb and flow wildly throughout the series, going from extreme elation to the depths of despair in a matter of minutes, and she has no qualms about vocalising them to the people around her. Autistic people can often struggle to regulate and/or recognise their emotions; many of us live with a comorbid condition called ‘Alexithymia’, or ‘emotion-blindness’. Anne’s feelings often seem to be shunted into the extremes of ‘very good’ and ‘very bad’, and it is not until later in the series she begins to better understand and manage them. During her argument with Mrs. Lynd, before storming off outside, she exclaims: “I don’t care if I hurt your feelings by saying so. I hope I hurt them! Because you have hurt my feelings worse than they have ever been hurt before.” This, along with many other incidents, could perhaps be described as a meltdown. 

    Incidentally, this argument develops when Mrs. Lynd insults Anne’s looks, about which she is incredibly self-conscious. It is a long-held stereotype that autistic people don’t care about (or even notice) what they look like, but in fact personal style can be very important to us for a variety of reasons (sensory issues, social acceptance, low self-esteem). Anne’s ‘vanity’, as Marilla often describes it, comes up as a plot point time and time again; most notably when she accidentally dyes her hair green, and her eternal longing for puffed sleeves. 

    Fashion is very important to Anne, and, along with stories and Romanticism, can be described as a special interest. Her love of pretty clothes, tall tales and Big Words come up time and time again; she talks about them with great enthusiasm to anyone who will listen, and quickly engages most of her school friends in a love of stories. As well as having an extensive vocabulary, Anne has an unusual inflection to her voice; she speaks very quickly and enthusiastically, often jumping from topic to topic and confusing the people around her. This manner of speaking is not unusual for autistic people, especially when we get caught up in discussing our special interests. 

    Finally, Anne is an incredibly caring and empathetic person. The stereotype of autistic people lacking empathy is true of some people, but others can swing the other way, often being described as ‘hyper-empathetic’. Anne shows an extreme depth of kindness and understanding throughout the series, particularly to animals and other ‘outcasts’ like her, and is often cast as the champion of the downtrodden. In the words of the heroine herself: “Different isn’t bad; it’s just not the same.”

    I find the character of Anne Shirley-Cuthbert to be truly, blindingly uplifting. Between our practical struggles and mental health issues, it can be very difficult to write an autistic character who is not dislikeable, or at the very least a victim. Anne is an orphan from a series of abusive homes, who encounters daily obstacles both at school and with her new family. She has every right to be a victim; and yet, she never is. In fact, more often than not Anne swoops in to save the day, frequently using her autistic traits and out-of-the-box thinking to find a solution where no one else can. She is an inspiration for everyone; but especially for those who are ‘different’.

    Wednesday Addams  (‘Wednesday’)

    Wednesday is a Netflix spin-off series from the Addams Family, featuring the sullen teenage daughter as the titular character. Expelled from her mainstream school, Wednesday is sent to Nevermore school for ‘outcasts’, where she lands bright, cheerful Enid for a roommate. 

    Despite residing in a school for outcasts (which in the series means supernatural), Wednesday still manages to be ‘different’. She is solitary and insular, purposely secluding herself from her peers and only joining a social club when she is made to. She is academic and superior, not caring who she insults with her witticisms, and often uses her classmates and teachers as pawns to her own end. Some autistic people can be prone to ‘using’ others, and see them as tools or stepping stones to an end goal, perhaps due to pragmatism and/or atypical empathy skills . Wednesday is fully aware of her calculated manner, and doesn’t see anything wrong with it; as she tells [?], “I will ignore you, stomp on your heart, and always put my needs and interests first.” Part of Wednesday’s character arc is learning to overcome her manipulative nature in order to form meaningful relationships. 

    It’s not just friendship that pulls Wednesday out of her comfort zone. From the off, it is clear that public displays of affection make her very uncomfortable (albeit from her parents), and when Xavier and Tyler make their advances, she is totally at a loss for how to conduct a romantic relationship (“I’m not friend material, let alone more-than-friend material”). Personally, I think they missed an opportunity to make her queer and/or asexual; this would have been more in line with her autistic coding, as autistic people are less likely to fit into a heteronormative mould. 

    Perhaps linked to Wednesday’s standoffishness is her dislike of emotion, both others’ and her own. She tells her brother Pugsley that “emotion equals weakness”, and later in the series Enid says to her, “most people spend their entire lives pretending to give zero Fs, and you literally never had an F to give.” Like Anne, there is a chance that Wednesday may struggle with Alexithymia- a difficulty in understanding and managing your own emotions- which is a common condition among autistic people. 

    Another thing Wednesday and Anne have in common is their unusual manner of speaking; but unlike Anne, Wednesday’s voice is flat and dry. Speaking in a monotone voice is one of the more stereotypical autistic traits; in the Netflix series, it often conveys Wednesday’s lack of feeling, or is used for comedic effect. 

    Wednesday has a vast litany of skills and hobbies which she schedules rigidly into her day. She is militant about practising cello and writing her novel, and tells Enid that if she [quote about blog]. Her diligent upkeep of her skills adheres to the autistic need for structure and routine, and her single-minded pursuit of them could be described as hyperfocus. 

    Finally, we are well aware that Wednesday is ‘not a hugger’; and perhaps this comes down to more than just her dislike of emotion. Autistic people have a vast array of sensory differences, and many of us are uncomfortable with physical touch, especially from strangers. The possibility that Wednesday has sensory processing issues is backed up by her wearing of a special uniform; while it is likely this was done in order to make her stand out (she wears black and grey while everyone else wears black and purple), it is still reminiscent of the autistic need to wear special or moderated clothing. Wednesday’s gothic aesthetic is clearly very important to her; and in fact, personal style is often sacred to autistic people for a great number of reasons (sensory needs, self-consciousness and social credit being but a few). 

    There’s no doubt about it; Wednesday Addams is an icon. With her chic, vintage style and unwavering self-confidence (backed up by her fighting skills), she is the strong female protagonist that is so often sought after in teen fiction. Not only is she taken seriously in spite of her autistic traits, but they are often vital to advancing the plot, such as her oddly-specific knowledge and intense focus on the central mystery. Whilst Wednesday does come to moderate some of her autistic tendencies- such as learning to appreciate and accept help from her classmates- this also goes the other way, for example Enid coming to respect her personal space, and stating that “not hugging is kind of [their] thing”. This mirrors the compromise that autistic people and their loved ones so often have to make, finding a middle ground between ways of living. 

    Luna Lovegood (‘Harry Potter’)

    Luna Lovegood appears in the fifth Harry Potter film (‘Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix’), and quickly established herself as a sweet, eccentric oddball. Despite being something of a loner, she becomes integrated into the main cast of witches and wizards, and becomes a key asset in the fight against the infamous Voldemort.

    From the off, Luna is established as a social outcast, even in a world where being ‘quirky’ is the norm. Hermione accidentally introduces her to Harry as ‘Loony Lovegood’- a nickname which seems to be well-used by the other students- and is regularly framed sitting and walking alone. She seems not to mind her treatment by the other students, but rather views it as a simple fact of life, and is positive and polite towards them in a way that is almost naive. Autistic people can often be overly-forgiving to those around them, and have difficulty seeing malicious intent if it is not laid out on the surface. When the opportunity to connect with others presents itself, Luna is always happy to take it, whilst still having the self-esteem to just enjoy her own company. As she says when Dumbledore’s Army is disbanded, “I enjoyed the meetings, too. It was like having friends.”

    Luna’s manner of speaking is, from her very first lines, direct and unnerving. She ignores social conventions, or else narrates them out loud in a manner that suggests they are learned to her, rather than instinctive (“Harry doesn’t want to talk to us right now; he’s just too polite to say so”). This can alienate others and make them uncomfortable, as is often the case for autistic people. Like Anne and Wednesday, Luna also has an unusual affect to her voice; her tone is soft and far-away, adding to her ethereal quality and making her seem as though she is ‘not all there’. Incidentally, there is regular allusion to Luna being ‘mad’, which is often used as an umbrella term for people who are mentally ill, have a learning disability, or a neurological difference like autism. Upon seeing the thestrals, Luna tells Harry, “Don’t worry; you’re just as sane as I am.” This unnerves the young protagonist, since everyone knows that Luna is, in fact, ‘mad’. 

    Sane or not, Luna is certainly clever. Her house is Ravenclaw, which is renowned for wisdom, and Luna’s particular brand of supernatural insight seems to contrast with Hermione’s rigid book-learning. Despite the stereotype that autistic people cannot read others, some of us can pick up on very subtle emotions by paying close attention to the details of an individual. When Luna tells Harry, “I’ve interrupted a deep thought, haven’t I? I can see it growing smaller in your eyes,” it not only bolsters her depiction as autistic, but adds to her mystical, unsettling aura. 

    One thing that makes Luna stand out even before her personality hits you is her appearance. She has long blonde hair reminiscent of an angel or fairy, light, open features, and a dress sense that can only be described as chaotic. One of her most notable fashion moments is when she shows up in the Great Hall wearing an enormous lion headdress, ready to support Gryffindor in the upcoming quidditch match. Her vibrant fashion sense could perhaps denote someone who is sensory-seeking, and derives extreme joy from bright, loud colours and fabrics. 

    Luna Lovegood is a universally beloved character, and I believe that her autistic traits are key to her likeability. Her honesty and open-mindedness, her loyalty and individualism, her wise words and quirky style, can all be linked back to neurodivergence. Luna does end up with a litany of true, devoted friends within Hogwarts, and has something of a cult following within the Harry Potter fanbase. When we so often see the archetype of an autistic person who is cold and difficult, it is truly refreshing to encounter a character who is adored not in spite of their autism, but because of it.

    Male Autistic Characters

    • Charlie (‘The Perks of being a Wallflower’)
    • Newt Scamander (‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’)
    • Alan Turing (‘The Imitation Game’)

    Charlie (‘The Perks of being a Wallflower’)

    Charlie Kelmeckis is an American teenage boy, who writes about his school experience in his letters to a stranger. He is re-joining the school system after taking some time off to deal with his mental health issues, which- unbeknownst to us at first- stem from sexual abuse and his best friend’s suicide. Charlie makes friends with a collection of misfits in their final year, the titular wallflowers, and through them begins to heal and ‘participate’ in real life. 

    Charlie’s unpopular status is quite literally woven into the title of the film. On his first day, nobody talks to him at all save to mock him, and he says to his teacher Mr. Andersen, “if my English teacher is the only friend I make today, that would be sorta depressing.” Even when he is integrated into a social group, his behaviour is heralded as strange and awkward, and he is later ostracised by them for committing a social faux pas (being dared to kiss the prettiest girl in the room, and choosing his secret crush Sam rather than his ‘girlfriend’ Mary-Elizabeth). Charlie is aware of his ‘weirdness’, and regularly wishes he could better relate to his peers, especially when it comes to confessing his love for Sam. 

    Charlie’s manner of communication sways between him being painfully truthful and direct, and saying nothing at all. This can be typical of an autistic person trying- and failing- to navigate complex social nuances which they don’t understand. He verbalises inner thoughts which should not really be shared- especially when his friends introduce him to drugs and alcohol- and the plot device used to tell the story, Charlie’s letters, showcases how he is more comfortable and eloquent expressing his feelings in writing. For example, after insulting Mary-Elizabeth about her buzz cut, he says, “I’m really sorry, that sounded like a compliment in my head.”

    The connections Charlie ends up forging with his friends are deep and intense, which is often the way for autistic people. They are several years older than him- autistic people are prone to making friends who are much older or much younger, since we put more stock in shared interests than mutual age- and he clings to them with a ferocity that can make them uncomfortable at times. When the group rejects him, his mental health spirals, demonstrating just how much of his self-worth is tied up in his friendships. This is reminiscent of a condition many autistic people have called Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria (RSD), whereby any rejection, no matter how small, can feel like the end of the world. Charlie is a wallflower, a people-watcher, as many of us autists are, and consequently his lack of proactiveness can negatively affect his relationships. As Sam tells him: “you can’t just sit there and put everybody’s lives ahead of yours and think that counts as love.”

    In addition to RSD, Charlie has a host of complex mental health issues. As with Beth and Anne, his case presents a crossover between autistic traits and childhood trauma, and in fact the story makes it clear how vehemently the trauma has affected him. However, his mental health issues still help contribute to the picture of autism, as a good number of autistic people also experience comorbid mental health conditions. Later in the film, Charlie dissociates from his real life, which is a subconscious coping mechanism for dealing with trauma. Not only is this something many autistic people do, but it is also reminiscent of Alexithymia. Charlie acknowledges a lack of understanding of his own thoughts and feelings throughout, such as when he says “I am both happy and sad, and I’m still trying to figure out how that could be.” Despite-or perhaps because of- this, he is very interested in picking apart his own psychology, especially the extent to which he feels present in any given moment (“you’re not a sad story; you are alive”). In some ways, this intense self-analysis mirrors what it is like to get an autism diagnosis as an adult, and have to review your entire life through a brand-new lens. 

    I find Charlie’s desperate longing for human connection to be heartbreakingly relatable. Whilst some autistic people are content living solo, a lot of us- a lot of us- are in fact desperate for friendship, love, or even a little understanding, but have absolutely no idea how to go about it. Watching him blunder his way through making friends is something I’m sure many autistic people can empathise with, that in-hindsight feeling of why on earth did I say that??? Despite this, his friends- having friends- means everything to him, and he is so enormously, selflessly empathetic towards them, even if they don’t always see it. Put simply, Charlie is a good person; and we all like to see ourselves reflected in good people. 

    Newt Scamander (‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’)

    Newt Scamander is a Wizard within the Harry Potter universe (albeit living well before Harry Potter’s time), whose vocation is the study and preservation of rare magical creatures. He travels to America to return Frank the thunderbird to its natural habitat, and engages in a series of magical antics in 1920s New York. 

    Newt is a notably introverted character. Preferring the company of his suitcaseful of creatures, he seems less interested in human connections than some of the previously mentioned characters. He tells Jacob that he “annoy[s] people”, but doesn’t seem particularly bothered by his lack of popularity. This is in keeping with the stereotype that autistic people keep to themselves, and perhaps indicative how autism typically presents in boys, men and people who are raised male. That being said, Newt does make friends with Jacob and Queenie, and pursues a romantic relationship with Tina (in dazzlingly awkward fashion). In the second film ‘The Crimes of Grindelwald’, Newt takes a stab at romance by comparing Tina’s eyes to that of a salamander, to which Jacob warns him, “don’t say that.” 

    There is perhaps a crossover between Newt’s odd mannerisms and his ‘Britishness’, especially to a non-British audience. His use of conventional niceties even when it’s inappropriate (for example, telling Tina she’s got mustard on her face when she’s arresting him) could be perceived as an autistic person misusing learned behaviour, or of cliched British niceties. Of course, it could always be both. 

    A feature which perhaps adds to Newt’s awkwardness is his unusual posture; he holds his head at a slight tilt, and seems to avoid eye contact for the most part. Whilst many autistic people are capable of eye contact, we can find it intense and uncomfortable, and be unsure when to meet someone’s gaze, and when to look away. He can also appear somewhat dishevelled, doesn’t appear to have many personal care items in his fake ‘muggle’ suitcase, and when instructed by Tina, cannot produce the correct travel papers. All of this suggests a level of executive dysfunction- a difficulty in planning and carrying out tasks- which bolsters his depiction as autistic. 

    One of Newt’s most prevalent autistic traits- and a potential source of his executive dysfunction- is his passion for his creatures. The fantastic beasts for which the franchise is named are the centre of Newt’s world, and his sole purpose for being in America. He breaks the law for them, risks others’ and his own personal safety for them, and generally prioritises them above all else. Newt’s creatures can certainly be described as a special interest, and his empathy with animals and magical beasts above his fellow humans is very much in keeping with the autistic archetype. 

    The character of Newt Scamander is refreshingly resolute and selfless. His strong, unwavering convictions are indicative of the autistic sense of black-and-white morality, and it is good to see an autistic trait being showcased in such a positive manner. Newt is a champion of the downtrodden, both of voiceless, vulnerable creatures, and misunderstood human beings. He may be awkward and insular, but his layers hide a heart of gold.

    Alan Turing (‘The Imitation Game’)

    Alan Turing is our only autistic-coded character to be based on a real person. He was (among other things) a British mathematician, who made enormous strides towards victory during World War II by cracking the Enigma Code. The film ‘The Imitation Game’ focuses on his time in Bletchley Park, his work for the war effort and his relationships with his co-workers. 

    Turing is arguably the most blatant (or stereotypical) portrayal of autism on this list, so much so that I would argue that it was intended for him to be read this way. His character can be described as a ‘savant’, a rare sub-category of autistic people who have some sort of astounding ability or talent. He has a special interest in numbers, patterns and computing- showcased not only in his war work but through the flashbacks to his school years- and regularly hyperfocuses on tasks related to these things. The epitome of the autistic stereotype, Turing is logic-minded to the exclusion of all else, which can both help and hinder him depending on the situation. For example, his task to break the Enigma Code relies heavily on his logical thinking; but it can also cause friction with those around him, for example when he will not consider calling off the attack on the HMS Carlisle and saving the life of Hilton’s brother, who then accuses him of ‘playing God’. 

    For most of his career at Bletchley Park, Turning has a strained relationship with his co-workers. He is blunt and introverted, preferring the ‘company’ of his computer (which he calls Christopher after his deceased friend) to the humans around him. His literal thinking can also land him in trouble; for example, when John Cairncross, angry that his invitation has been ignored, says, “I had asked, if you wanted to come have lunch with us”, to which Turing replies, “No, you didn’t, you said you were going to get some lunch.” This type of misunderstanding is common between autistic and neurotypical people, who have different preferred ways of communicating, and can cause strain in all areas of life (including the workplace). Turning is not completely without desire for human connection, though. His deep attachment to his school friend Christopher showcases how strongly he can bond with others, and in a brief argument in his home, Joan tells him, “I’m sorry that you’re lonely.”

    Turing is also shown to have been ostracised during his school years. In the flashback scenes, we see cases of vicious bullying from his classmates, and examples of the ‘odd’ behaviour which often prompts this. One example is his separating of food on a plate, and his distress when the food becomes mixed up; categorisation of food (and other things) is often very important to autistic people, for reasons relating to structure and/or sensory issues. Autistic children often become more flexible with food as they get older (though not always). 

    Despite being surrounded by other mathematicians (and despite his marriage to Joan), one of Turing’s most significant relationships is with his computer Christopher. One explanation for this could be Turing’s childhood friend of the same name, who died suddenly during school and with whom he was very close. However, his ‘relationship’ with the machine could also be attributed to the autistic tendency to anthropomorphize animals and inanimate objects, projecting thoughts, feelings and personality traits onto non-human things. Autistic people can often find it easier to empathise with animals and objects than with other people. 

    Another significant element of Turing’s character- and indeed of the story as a whole- is his homosexuality. He proposes to and marries his co-worker Joan, despite his extreme awkwardness around her, and despite knowing he is gay, in part to cover this up and keep himself on the ‘right’ side of the law. Homosexuality was illegal in Britain until 1967, and when Alan’s sexual preferences are found out, he is forced to undergo chemical castration. In the present day, there is a correlation between autistic people and people who identify as LGBTQ+; although this may not be relevant in this case, as it is largely attributed to autistic people being less troubled by the stigma of being gay, which Turing obviously (and justifiably) is. 

    Today, Alan Turing is celebrated as a war hero. He was instrumental to British Victory in WWII, and his work in the fields of maths and computer science saved thousands of lives; however, he was systematically and brutally victimised in his own time. Whilst the most egregious transgressions against him are related to his homosexuality, the microaggressions he experiences throughout ‘The Imitation Game’ can frequently be linked to his autistic traits. Alan is an inspiring and poignant example of how autistic people can do astounding things for those around them, no matter what is done to them.

    Autistic Cartoon Characters

    • Elsa (‘Frozen’)
    • The Belcher Children (‘Bob’s Burgers’)
    • Paddington (‘Paddington’)

    Elsa (‘Frozen’)

    Elsa is a Disney princess- or, more accurately, queen- who rules over the mythical kingdom of Arandelle, and has the supernatural ability to turn things to ice. She is a sympathetic re-imagining of the traditional Snow Queen character, who, throughout the course of the film, comes to explore her powers and her own character, and repairs the strained relationship between herself and her sister Anna. 

    From my first viewing back in 2013, it struck me how refreshingly unfriendly Elsa is for a Disney princess. Her hidden powers and childhood isolation impair her socially, which in turn makes her standoffish and, in my case, hugely relatable. Worrying about a party and snapping at family members because of that anxiety is something many autistic people will be able to relate to; and, if that’s not enough, her dire charades performance in the second film really seals the deal. Elsa is the queen of social awkwardness, which I was thrilled to see in the main character of a Disney film. 

    Unlike some of the other characters here, Elsa is perhaps less of an autistic-coded character, and more of an allegory for living as an autistic person. For example, her ice powers can be viewed as a metaphor for sensory issues; it means she has to be very careful what she touches, and often holds herself and moves in a sort of cringing, uncomfortable way. Autistic people can be hypersensitive and/or hyposensitive to sensory input; so for some of us, the phrase “the cold never bothered me anyway” can be quite literal. 

    Perhaps the biggest connection between Elsa and autism is the idea of having a ‘Big Secret’. These days, more and more autistic people are receiving a diagnosis (or perhaps just realising their autism) as adults; meaning they have spent their entire childhoods knowing they were different, perhaps believing that there was something ‘wrong’ with them, but not knowing exactly what. As a supernatural being, Elsa has a sense of ‘otherness’ that isolates her from other people, and comes to underpin her social anxiety and low self-esteem (in this case hugely exacerbated by her parents’ poor handling of the situation). Elsa has been interpreted by many viewers as having mental health issues, or perhaps representing the experience of those who do. Conditions like depression, anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder are often comorbid with autism, and bolster her portrayal of an autistic person’s struggles. 

    On the other hand, ‘Frozen II’ moves away from Elsa’s problems, and focuses more on her strengths. A key plot point in this film is the journey of self-discovery she embarks upon, both literally and physically, travelling to Ahtohallan and discovering that her mother had magical powers like her, and belonged to a tribe of indigenous people. Discovering this truth about her heritage, Elsa learns to be at peace with herself and her ‘otherness’, coming to regard it as something to celebrate. This mirrors the emotional journey that many late-diagnosed people take- or at least try to- when coming to terms with being autistic and, therefore, disabled. Whilst it comes with many difficulties, being autistic can also be a major asset if it is accommodated well; and learning to view it in a positive light is a journey just as ambitious as riding an ice horse to a magical glacier. 

    Elsa is a literal ice queen, beloved and imitated by seven-year-olds all over the world; and yet she is also an anxious, crotchety hot-head, who struggles throughout both films with her sense of self-worth. Her struggles can be interpreted as a variety of disabilities and mental health conditions, and therefore she can be taken as a positive role model by multiple communities. I love how complex a character we are presented with, and I truly believe that the journey of self-discovery on which Elsa embarks is more engaging than any number of eternal winters and rock trolls and irritating talking snowmen (sorry Olaf). The song ‘Show Yourself’ brings a tear to my eye every time; it is the perfect summary of the autistic struggle to convince yourself that you are enough.

    The Belcher Children (‘Bob’s Burgers’)

    Tina, Gene and Louise Belcher (aged 13, 11 and 9) are three siblings whose father owns a burger restaurant in New Jersey. Their antics in and around the restaurant provide many of the plots and subplots of the series. 

    It is a widely-held belief that all of the Belcher children (among other characters) are neurodivergent. Tina being autistic is used as a joke in the very first episode, as autism often is when creators don’t quite want to commit to a legitimised portrayal. They all experience social and communication differences in their own way: Tina is awkward and anxious, Louise is loud, dominating and excitable, and Gene fluctuates between the two. Tina is hugely preoccupied with navigating her romantic relationships, namely her infatuation with Jimmy Jr. On her part, this connection is powerful and intense, despite Jimmy Jr being utterly oblivious to her feelings most of the time (Tina: “I’ve logged over 3,000 fantasy hours on my relationship with Jimmy Jr”). Whilst this is normal for a teenager, difficulty and confusion around romance (and even friendship) is something many teenage adolescents hugely struggle with. Gene is impressionable and naive, often seeming far younger than he is, and displaying significant emotional dependence on his mother Linda.  On the other end of the spectrum, Louise is manipulative and often uses others to further her own agenda. Despite their contrasts, these traits can all be typical of autistic people, sometimes even of one autistic person at different times. 

    All of the children have idiosyncrasies regarding structure and routine. In one episode, Gene becomes incredibly anxious about sleeping over at his friend’s house,  because he will be staying with different people in a different environment. Louse wears the same pink hat all day every day, even in situations where it could be considered inappropriate. This could be considered a structural thing, and/or a sensory processing thing; in fact many autistic people wear the same item of clothing over and over again, regardless of the weather, activity or social setting . Moreover, the design of the hat is very cartoon and ‘kawaii’, a style often sought after by autistic people for its simple expressiveness. Most of the Belcher children’s spare time is spent working in the restaurant, which provides them with a very predictable routine (well, it would were it not a TV series). 

    The Belcher kids have varying academic abilities, and give very different performances at school. Tina is studious and has meaningful relationships with the school staff, such as the guidance counsellor Mr. Frond. Gene states that he is “not good at sports, [and] not good at school”, whilst Louise is clearly very clever, but runs into trouble in school because of her stubbornness. Autistic children can thrive or struggle in school just as neurotypical children do (though often for very different reasons), which the Belcher children display perfectly. In addition to this, they all display a strong moral compass; even Louise, who can often be perceived as ‘naughty’ and manipulative, still has an unshakeable sense of what is right and wrong. Having a defined, black-and-white sense of morality is a trait which the majority of autistic people have in common. 

    I really enjoy how well the Belcher children illustrate the ‘spectrum’ element of autism. They each display a distinct character and personality, showcasing different relationships with friends, school, their parents and each other, whilst all maintaining a handful of core autistic traits. They are all also very easy to like and relate to in their own ways: Tina’s introspectiveness and depth of thought, Gene’s warmth and affectionate nature, Louise’s cunning and sense of humour. The Belcher children provide us with a range of characters as diverse as any neurotypical cast, both upholding and defying a host of long-held stereotypes about autism.

    Paddington (‘Paddington’)

    Paddington Brown is a brown bear who emigrates to London from Darkest Peru. He is taken in by the Brown family, and his adjustments to London life generate havoc for himself and those around him, from museum break-ins to prison sentences to train chases. 

    Like Elsa, I do not so much regard Paddington as actually autistic, but more emblematic of the autistic experience. There is a lot of crossover between the ‘weirdness’ of an autistic person, and the idiosyncrasies of a person living in a foreign land, with different rules and societal norms. In fact, there is a particular phenomenon of autistic people moving abroad specifically to disguise their behaviours, which might then be perceived as ‘foreign’ instead of autistic. Paddington’s status as an immigrant, and the way he experiences his surroundings through this, is key to the plot of both the first and second film. 

    For one thing, his speech is often made up of learned phrases specific to London (or English) society. Things like ‘really chucking it down’ and “a real brolly-buster” are practised by Paddington and Aunt Lucy like they are learning a foreign language, and he often whips them out to fill a lull in the conversation. This mirrors the autistic trait of using learned ‘scripts’ to carry out an interaction. 

    By contrast to many of the other characters on this list, Paddington is very social, and will go out of his way to speak to others even when he perhaps should not (e.g. for safety reasons). He is very naive, and always thinks the best of people, no matter their situation; such as his fellow prison inmates in Paddington 2, which ultimately helps him to escape. As Mr. Brown says, “he looks for the good in all of us.” Contrary to the stereotype, many autistic people love to socialise, even if we don’t always grasp neurotypical social conventions. The propensity to see the good in others- or at least not consider ulterior motives- is also typical of autistic people, and can have both positive and negative consequences in the real world (as is often the case for Paddington). 

    In addition to this, Paddington also has a tendency to interpret things in a very literal way. This could relate to English being his second language (after ‘Bear’), but it is also a common autistic trait. We see an example of this in the second film; Paddington is struggling to carry multiple sacks of oranges, so Knuckles tells him to take them one at a time, whereupon Paddington starts to transport each orange individually. Knuckles then becomes angry over Paddington’s literal-mindedness, which, unfortunately, is a reaction autistic people often face. In this scene we are also shown an example of Paddinton’s strong moral compass; when Knuckles insults Aunt Lucy, he squares up to the convict and gives him a ‘hard stare’, despite Knuckles being far bigger and tougher than him. As discussed with previous characters, firm convictions and clear-cut ethics is a trait which most autistic people share. 

    It’s safe to say that Paddington is more than a little obsessed with London, as is Aunt Lucy; the entire plot of the second film revolves around Paddington wanting to gift her a London-themed pop-up book. There is certainly an argument that London is Paddington’s special interest. Finally, Paddington is famous for always carrying a marmalade sandwich in his hat. This could be interpreted both as the autistic tendency to carry around everything you could possibly need in order to always be prepared (“a wise bear always keeps a marmalade sandwich in his hat, in case of emergency”); or possibly as a ‘safe food’, which autistic people gravitate towards on days where their sensory issues are particularly prevalent. We often bring safe foods with us when going to a restaurant, to a friend’s house, or just out in general, in case there are no acceptable options available to us. 

    Paddington has been a much-loved children’s character for over sixty years, and has long since been a symbol for Britain’s immigrant population. With such a strong crossover between the way autistic people present, and the way a person comes across in a foreign land (an apt metaphor), it’s fascinating to see how well Paddington’s experience matches up with that of an autistic person. I love how positive a portrayal this provides us with; Paddington is kind and courageous, creative and open-minded, and has been a comfort to both children and adults for over half a century. In the words of the bear himself: “I’ll never be like other people, but that’s alright.”

    Autistic-coded characters in TV Shows and Films – Conclusion

    Autism is a complicated condition, and no two autistic people are ever the same. Whilst there are a collection of core traits that we all share in one way or another, our experiences of these can range from being hyper to hyposensitive, having no empathy to having too much, being non-vocal or never knowing when to stop talking, and so on. What I love about these characters is how different they all are; from Louise Belcher to Alan Turing, they are every bit as diverse, well-rounded, and three-dimensional a group as you would encounter among the neurotypical population. Moreover, there is something to like, or relate to, or be inspired by in every single one of them. I watch these characters navigating their lives, displaying qualities and facing challenges that are deeply familiar to me, and it makes me feel seen and validated in a way that Rain Man never could. Autistic people are just people; and we deserve representation as much as anyone.

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  • Autistic Comfort Foods and Breaking our Beige Boundaries

    Autism and Comfort Foods

    Perhaps one of the more commonly known Autistic traits is being a “fussy eater”. 

    As an autistic person, maybe you don’t want your foods to touch, or you can’t cope with strong flavours. Perhaps you’ve been told to stop eating with your eyes, or you’ve been forced to try something new. I’ve often explained my eating habits by telling people “I don’t like mixing my wets and my drys” (aka a dry food should never touch a sauce unless I decide I want them mixed that way). 

    New foods can be scary, especially food that we may not recognise. Trying something new isn’t always as easy as it sounds, especially for autistic people who may struggle in particular with new and unusual flavours and/ or textures. I find myself particularly susceptible to the smell of foods over taste, and would often decide what I will and won’t try based on smell alone. 

    Plus, there are also external factors that aren’t the food itself that can add to the stress of mealtimes. The sounds of eating, such as people chewing and cutlery scraping against plates, plus the social expectations if you’re at a sit down meal can further reinforce our food limits. 

    These elements can go beyond unfamiliar and into overwhelming, and autistic people may experience sensory overload with new foods.

    The barriers of being an autistic “fussy eater”

    In my primary school canteen the table on the far left was known simply as “the fussy table”, and everyone knew that to be sent to the fussy table was the ultimate humiliation. When I was eight I firmly told the dinner lady that I didn’t want to eat the curry they had served, and in response I was force fed a spoonful which resulted in me boycotting curry for an entire decade. The worst part was that I was sent to the fussy table. But what the dinner ladies had failed to mention, however, is that the fussy table was served pizza for lunch every day. Go figure.

    Building a stigma around the “fussy table” built up social pressure in the school for children to be pushed outside their comfort zones with food. Everyone was expected to eat what was put in front of them, and to say no was to misbehave. Rather than fostering a culture of exploration, the school used food as a measure of discipline, building negative associations for me and many other children who were labelled fussy eaters.

    However, being a fussy eater is complicated. You don’t know if a restaurant will serve food that you like, and any foods you do like may come smothered in a sauce that renders it inedible. You feel awkward and difficult making special requests to service staff, without something like an allergy which may serve to “justify” your request.

    This fear of food can make any meal stressful. It can affect holidays, events and special occasions. It may play on your mind from the moment someone suggests going out to eat. Whilst these barriers may not be insurmountable for an autistic person, they can be stressful and upsetting.

    Step by step plan to try new foods as an autistic “fussy eater”

    Below is a small step by step guide that may be helpful for an autistic person wanting to try new foods. 

    It’s important to remember that every autistic person is different, and what’s worked for me as someone who is autistic may not work for another person who is also autistic.

    Step 1: Understand your current food boundaries

    Knowing your boundaries when it comes to foods is not a negative thing, nor should it be portrayed as one. Having comfort foods, preferences for a certain type of food, and knowing what you are and aren’t willing to try is perfectly acceptable.

    Before you start trying new foods, it’s helpful to work on identifying your needs, boundaries, and comfort foods. These can be statements like “I will not eat dry foods and wet foods mixed”, “I hate eating things with a thick texture”, or “I absolutely love chicken nuggets and will always eat them”. 

    Having these boundaries cemented means; 

    1. You can be certain where you are starting out from, identify any progress you make, and celebrate it. You will be able to look back at yourself only eating plain pasta, and be proud as you happily chow down on mac and cheese. 
    2. Allows you to communicate your boundaries to others. It’s much easier to test your boundaries and try new foods if others are aware of them, and can support you as you try new foods outside of your comfort zone. 
    3. You have a known safety net you can rely on. For example, say chips are one of your safety foods, and you go out for a meal and order a burger and chips. The burger has a sauce that you weren’t expecting and can’t manage to eat. But thankfully, you know chips are your comfort food, and you can just have the chips to eat instead. 

    Step 2: Identify what food growth you’d like to make

    Some autistic people only eat plain pasta… and they’re absolutely fine with that. Whereas others want to be able to eat a few different pasta dishes, just in case they go out for a meal and plain pasta isn’t an option. 

    It’s important to map out what growth you’d like to make as an autistic eater so you have a clear goal to reach. Try to make your goals small and reasonable so you’re not setting yourself up for failure, and make sure they’re goals that you as an autistic person want to achieve, rather than food goals that someone else or society is making you feel you should be achieving. 

    Your goals could be as broad as trying everything at least once, or simply accepting small changes to dishes you are already comfortable with. 

    Step 3: Try something new

    Once you are aware of your current food boundaries and where you’d like to be heading with them, if you’re comfortable, you can start to try new things. 

    Remember that “new” can mean a range of different things, such as;

    • A completely new dish
    • A new texture or flavour 
    • A new way of preparing a current comfort food, like pasta with sauce rather than plain 
    • Combining multiple textures or flavours in a way that’s new to you, like peanut butter and marmite on your toast together 

    Don’t overload yourself; if you know you struggle with both textures and flavours, you can stick to a texture you know and are comfortable with, but try a new flavour (like a new ice cream flavour if you enjoy ice cream, for example). 

    Tips to help you try new foods as an autistic person

    Below are some tips to keep in mind as you start trying new foods as an autistic person;

    Tip 1: Take small steps

    Broadening your food horizons is a marathon, not a sprint, and small steps are not to be scoffed at. 

    My comfort food growing up was plain pasta. I would only eat pasta with butter stirred in, never a pasta bake or pasta salad. However, my mother began by adding cheese. From there I discovered I was okay with Mac n Cheese, and then uni introduced a whole world of pasta sauces to me. I’m still not a big fan of bolognaise, but I love alfredo sauce. Through this granular exploration I was able to explore my love of pasta at my own pace. Sure, it felt embarrassing asking the University caterers for a plateful of plain spaghetti, but I was comfortable and that’s what matters.

    There’s a large amount of growth between eating only plain pasta vs eating pasta with a range of different pasta sauces. But it was only because of the small steps that were taken over a long period that this became possible for me. 

    Don’t overwhelm yourself; take small steps, in your own time. 

    Tip 2: Don’t be afraid to ask for help

    Whilst you’re the person trying the new foods, you shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help from those around you. 

    You can ask a friend or relative to be your designated person to probe at restaurants if you’re not comfortable doing so; for example, discuss with restaurant staff if the burger you’re thinking of ordering is smothered in a sauce or if it comes on the side.  

    If you’re eating out with friends and you don’t want to order something you may not like, see if they will give you a bite of their food. That way you can explore without the pressure of finishing a meal you may not like- and without going hungry!

    Remember, whilst you may feel uncomfortable asking for their help, those around you should be supportive in your quest, and will hopefully also be there to celebrate any progress you make.

    Tip 3: Consider your other autistic sensitivities

    We often forget that there are other things around the food itself that can be an issue for autistic people. 

    If you’re an autistic person wanting to try new foods, if you are able to, remember the other sensitivities you may have and control them if possible. 

    For example;

    • If you find social expectations difficult, you can try new foods when you are alone so you don’t have to concentrate on masking. 
    • Consider your other senses; perhaps play music to drown out sounds that may bother you, or light a scented candle you like the smell of if you know certain food smells may be too overpowering for you.   

    Tip 4: Consider there are external factors beyond your control

    It’s important to consider that social and economic factors may affect your tastes, and your ability to branch out. 

    It wasn’t until I was exposed to a multitude of foods from different cultures at University that my pallet began to truly expand. I was lucky enough to be in a position where this food was affordable and readily available to me. 

    Not everyone has the opportunity to try new foods, and you should not put pressure on yourself if you are not able to try new foods due to factors that are beyond your control. 

    Tip 5: Remember progress isn’t linear

    As an autistic person, your needs change daily, depending on what’s going on around you. 

    Keep this in mind as you try new foods; some days you’ll feel excited to try an unknown dish, whereas other times you’ll just manage a plate of chicken nuggets, and that’s totally okay. 

    I can still look back and see obvious progress, as I know years ago I wouldn’t have gone anywhere near an unknown recipe! 

    Executive dysfunction and autistic eating

    Executive functioning refers to the mental processes that enable us to complete tasks, including planning, focusing attention, remembering, and juggling multiple tasks.

    Autistic people may have debilitating issues with executive functioning, and whilst many of us can still plan and carry out complex tasks, it takes considerable effort. 

    This can be evident when it comes to cooking as an autistic person; there are many stages involved in preparing a meal, from the initial stages of gathering the ingredients, then preparing the ingredients, to actually cooking the meal.  

    Cooking new foods is an even bigger demand on our executive functioning skills, as it presents a lot of new steps that are considerably easier for a non-autistic person to conduct. We have to first find a new recipe, then purchase new ingredients we may not already have, and follow a process that is new to us to prepare and cook the food. 

    Executive dysfunction tips for an autistic person wanting to cook new foods

    If you struggle with executive functioning as an autistic person, but still want to try new foods, here are some tips you could try; 

    1. Spread the whole process out into smaller, more manageable steps. For example, you could do any prep of the ingredients (such as washing and cutting veg) the night before you’re cooking a new meal. 
    2. Assign demanding requirements to someone else. If you know you struggle with chopping vegetables as an autistic person, you could ask someone else to do this for you. 
    3. Look for small things that will add up to make your cooking process easier. If you know grating cheese will take a lot of the energy needed to cook a new pasta bake from you, conserve that energy by purchasing some pre-grated cheese instead. 
    4. Try a recipe you already know, but with a new or swapped ingredient. Often the process of following a whole new recipe can be difficult; you could try following a recipe you already know, but adding an extra new ingredient or swapping a current ingredient for a new one, as a way to try a new food. Like swapping spinach in a curry to chunks of celery. 

    Conclusion on autistic comfort foods

    Whilst there is nothing wrong with having autistic comfort foods, if you want to expand your tastes, remember it’s a gradual process. 

    I would no longer consider myself a “fussy eater”, but it took years of trying new things, feeling awkward in restaurants and leaving food behind on my plate. There are still foods I dislike, but I find I can try new things easily. 

    Be kind to yourself as you go through this process. I always listen to my body; sometimes I don’t want to try something new, and that’s okay. Remember that this is first and foremost about you and what you want to achieve as an autistic eater. 

    And whilst I’m proud of how far I’ve come, I’ll never say no to a bowl of buttery pasta.

    References and Resources related to Autism Comfort Foods

  • Exclusive Interview with Charlie M baker – Author of “Charlie Baker: Autism And Me”

    Blog post featured image with text that reads Exclusive Interview with Charlie M Baker - Author of “Charlie Baker: Autism And Me”

    The Wyrd Sisters’s Exclusive Interview with author Charlie Michael Baker

    Today we are very excited to bring you an exclusive interview with author Charlie M Baker.

    After being bullied during his school years for being “different’ (including being assaulted), Charlie decided to self-publish his journal where he wrote his experiences into a book to raise awareness of autism.

    The book is called “Charlie Baker: Autism And Me”. Both he and his book quickly became a success; he has almost 1 million Instagram followers at the time of writing, and has now published multiple books about autism. He has also donated hundreds of thousands to autism charities.

    All three of us at The Wyrd Sisters were very excited to talk to Charlie, with our common interests including autism advocacy and writing.

    You can check out our exclusive interview with Charlie below!

    Exclusive Interview with Charlie M Baker

    1. How old were you when you were diagnosed as autistic?

    I was 6 years old when I was diagnosed with autism. 

    2. What was your initial reaction when you were diagnosed?

    When I was diagnosed, I think I was too young for I have it all processed so it’s only really just starting to process now, at 16, after learning about what having autism really means. 

    3. How do you feel about your diagnosis now?

    As I’m just starting to process my diagnosis 10 years on, I’m proud to be a part of the ASD community and I am more than prouder to be advocating it!! 

    4. What are your struggles with being autistic?

    My struggles are actually more socialising (which is surprising due to my career choices). I don’t really have many sensory struggles, more just social anxiety. 

    5. What made you want to write a book?  

    Christine McGuinness inspired my journey a lot as a young author. I saw Christine advocating autism and I saw everything she was doing for the community and I saw that not many people were speaking up and advocating autism – so I did. Now Christine and I have built an online friendship and she’s the loveliest, most supportive person ever. 

    6. Has your life changed since writing a book? If so, how?

    My life has changed so much from writing my book and being placed in the public eye. Lots of changes have to be made when you’re famous, especially as an autistic person with social anxiety!!

    7. Any tips or advice for other neurodivergent people wanting to become an author? 

    My only advice to anyone in life is do it! You’ll never know the outcome unless you try it so never ever second guess yourself!!

  • 5 tips for studying with ADHD

    5 Tips for studying with ADHD blog post

    It’s no secret that ADHD makes work difficult. Be that jobs around the house, or writing essays, ADHD can zap your focus or your energy and make it very difficult to stay on task and complete whatever it is you are trying to do.

    For ADHD students, studying is particularly tough.

    Why do ADHD students struggle to study?

    When most people think of students they probably think of someone in a library, at a computer or reading a book. In our minds studying is quiet, tranquil, and completely submerged in whatever it is we are doing. This clashes with several ADHD traits which compel people to fidget, wander or to get distracted by everything (or even nothing!). 

    For some ADHD students, studying presents a problem. It can be frustrating to try time and time again to work in a way that seems simple to others, but just doesn’t do it for you. It makes studying that much harder when the first battle is to stay focused, before you even begin your work.

    Can you study with ADHD?

    Whilst studying may be difficult for someone with ADHD, it is not impossible!

    It simply requires some techniques and tools that will help you work with your ADHD.

    5 Tips for Studying with ADHD

    Here are five tips and tricks which I used during my degree to help me get through my studies by adapting to my ADHD, rather than fighting it.

    1. Try different study methods, apps, and locations

    If a “fad” style of working helped you get the bottom of even one project, then it was a success

    There are numerous different aspects that are impacted by ADHD that need to be considered when trying to study. Where you’re studying, how you’re studying, and even what you’re doing with your phone whilst you’re studying can be really important.

    For example, as ADHD may make you fidget, daydream or flick through thoughts and emotions like a flipbook, it often creates the need for multiple stimuli. This can be really difficult to manage if you’re trying to studying in a way that only involves one stimuli, such as sitting there reading from a book.

    But on the flip side, this need for multiple stimuli can actually be harnessed for study; my University offered software which would read books out loud (wearing headphones in a library of course). My ADHD friend used this software to crochet whilst studying; feeding the ADHD need for multiple stimuli whilst auditory processing the information they were required to learn, stopping only to take essential notes.

    There are also several apps to help with focus. Focus Plant or Forest are apps that helps to minimize the risk of being distracted by your phone. They work by growing a plant or tree whilst you avoid going on your phone; if you use your phone, the plant/ tree dies, and you must start again. I would allow myself tangents but would focus up every ten minutes to snap back to whatever I was doing; often I would set a timer. 

    Sometimes, your headspace and where you’re actually studying is the most important aspect to work. I work so much better at a clean desk, listening to specifically string quartets. But on some days I feel more productive in a coffee shop, and sometimes in a library; I find it helps to vary my environment depending on how I’m feeling. 

    Trying different methods and locations can be time consuming, and sometimes frustrating, but it can often lead to more productive work at the end of the line. And don’t feel bad if a system only works for a brief time; if a “fad” style of working helped you get the bottom of even one project, then it was a success.

    2. Utilise Hyperfocus

    To hyperfocus literally means to be so transfixed with something you cannot switch your mind to anything else. This isn’t always a positive; it’s not uncommon for people who are hyperfocusing to forget to eat or drink, and all other commitments can fly out of the window.

    I find that whenever I am hyperfocusing on fabric crafts I look up and suddenly hours have passed, it’s nighttime, and I have a massive headache. It’s almost impossible to snap out of or even to appreciate some perspective during, so don’t feel too bad for not taking care of yourself.

    But if you tend to hyperfocus on things, and you are capable of manipulating that, then why not use it to your benefit? During my music degree, I would lock my door, silence my phone, and spend hours writing compositions that should have taken months.

    Please be careful if you are doing this; it is very important to take care of yourself and your health is more important than your studies. But why not get the best out of a deficit disorder?

    3. The Checkbox Method

    Ever ticked the box of a to-do list and breathed a sigh of relief? That’s because for many people with ADHD, ticking something off provides dopamine, a chemical in your brain which makes you feel good. It’s why checkboxes and to-do lists are such an effective method of organisation, particularly for people whose organising skills may not be their strongest suit.

    Reducing a task or piece of work into smaller checkboxes and ticking them off as you go can not only help work seem more surmountable, it also gives you a little reward as you work. You can even plan breaks into these to-do lists (after three ticks, then I’ll go get my ice cream!).

    This works on both micro and macro levels. You can do what I used to do and plan your whole day with to-do lists, from getting out of bed and showering to planned study sessions in the library, or you can break an essay down into subheadings, paragraphs, topics or readings all to be ticked off. Try to avoid putting timings down on to-do lists, or creating a to do list that’s miles long that nobody could complete; this could create too much pressure and reduce much-needed flexibility. 

    4. Listen to Your Needs

    There’s no point fighting what your body and mind are telling you. If you can’t get your brain to settle down and pay attention to whatever you’re studying, don’t force it. 

    I often find myself reading things which make absolutely no sense at all while my mind is unsettled, only to revisit it later and discover it makes perfect sense. Don’t force yourself to do study when your brain isn’t working; you may end up getting no work done anyway, which is just a waste of your time.

    What your ADHD requires is flexibility. For most ADHD people, the ability to focus comes and goes at will. So accept it, embrace it. Your mind is suddenly sharp as a point at 2am? Drink some caffeine, head to your desk and be productive when you can. 

    Whilst the majority of people are required to stick to a 9 to 5, as a student with set deadlines, there’s slightly more flexibility as to when you conduct the work to meet those deadlines. Who cares what time the work gets done, as long as it gets done. 

    Don’t force yourself to do work when your brain isn’t working; you may end up getting no work done anyway which is just a waste of your time.

    5. Use your Peers!

    What are friends for? When it came to essays and coursework papers, I found myself so burnt out after writing them that I never wanted to read them ever again. For some people, every proofread highlights more things that need to be adjusted, and the work never ends. Using friends to proofread essays and offer insight is a way to introduce patience that you may not have into a process that requires it. 

    Friends are also typically good ears; rant to them! It’s good to check someone has the capacity to help you deal with your problems, but if so then unload how tough your work day has been. Got sucked into a Wikipedia hole while researching? Ended up cleaning your whole room instead of working in it? Sharing these things can be comforting and can also offer some perspective into studies which can sometimes feel completely overwhelming.

    If you haven’t already, I recommend finding some ADHD friends who can further empathise with your struggles. Me and my friends used to share study tips as well as latest hacks for fidgeting, and which study spots offered peace compared to a more lively atmosphere. Advice and sympathy can sometimes make or break you, particularly close to a deadline. As a bonus, they can sometimes also help you navigate the support systems of your school/college/university.

    ADHD Study Tips – Conclusion

    Ultimately, there are a large number of hacks and tips for studying when you have ADHD, so hopefully at least one of these ADHD study tips will work for you. It’s okay to experiment with different studying tips and tricks; there’s no one-size-fits-all. It’s also okay to admit that it’s a struggle; ADHD is by definition a deficit, there is a reason it’s a disability. It can be disabling, and it can be incredibly frustrating or overwhelming to try and juggle these traits with your studies.

    But you should never struggle alone. Support systems within your institution are required to help you with whatever is within their means, and don’t underestimate the impact of peer support. Studying with ADHD can be tough, but it can be done, and the toil makes the success that much sweeter.

    References and Resources

  • Routine, Rules and Rituals; an autistic person’s guide to coping with change

    Rules, Routines and Rituals - Autistic Person's guide to coping with change blog post

    Many autistic people rely on routine and ritual to navigate through their lives. This structure can be comforting and change can be alarming, yet sometimes change is inevitable.

    If it ain’t broke…

    Why does an autistic person make a bad cashier? Because they can’t handle change. It’s an old joke imbued in the stereotypes we see cross our screens in all sorts of autistic-coded characters. Sheldon Cooper from the Big Bang Theory refuses to move from his spot on the couch, and many an autistic child from a big action movie struggles with a change (a divorce, or moving city) until the life-altering events of the movie help to give them some perspective and “cure” them of this issue.

    This is a stereotype based in truth. It is a known trait that some autistic people rely on routine and structure, and struggle to cope with change. There is a safety in repetition which many autistic people find comforting, and thus can grow attached to a particular routine. In our house growing up we had many such “traditions” from the little things, such as always stopping at the same shop to get a chocolate bar on the way home from karate, to the large events like Christmas which had to hold the same structure every year without fail. Any unplanned deviation from these routines can result in a range of negative emotions from discomfort to a meltdown.

    We construct these routines for comfort and control, and for many they are an incredibly important part of how things are done


    Autistic people can use routine to try and control and navigate what can be a very confusing world. This control can manifest in a myriad of ways. Some people use timetables to structure their every day, while others repeat meals over and over without getting bored. I for one use the same bowl and fork for every meal. This behaviour can be compulsive, and some people have noted a crossover in autism and OCD due to the nature of these rituals. A diagnosis of one does not necessarily mean the presence of the other, even if common behaviours can be found between the two.

    These routines can become so commonplace we don’t even notice them until they are disrupted. For example, every time I cycle home I avoid the same speed bump by swerving left to the small gap between where the speed bump ends and the pavement begins, followed by aiming for the small groove in the centre of the next speed bump. Then, I lean my bike up at the same spot against the wall, and lock it up. I didn’t realise the importance of this exact journey until someone had left a wheelie bin in my route, and every time there is an obstruction to this routine I feel suddenly and inexplicably furious until I can move the obstacle and continue as normal.

    We construct these routines for comfort and control, and for many they are an incredibly important part of how things are done. Many autistic people have strong feelings about the “right” way something should be done, and for many this is more than an inclination, it is a must.

    Doing it the “right” way

    While routines will often just affect ourselves, the preference for things being done the “right” way can affect those around us. Autistic people can often grow attached to a particular method of doing things, and in many situations all other ways are just plain wrong. 

    I find this manifests itself the most for me when playing card games. If someone knows the same game as me but with slightly different rules, I struggle to articulate the importance that the game be played my way. What may be a small insignificant detail to come is incredibly important to me, and I worry that people won’t understand my upset if things don’t go my way. Yes, it does seem ridiculous that I would cry and quit a card game because people don’t want to play with my rules, however I simply could not handle playing it any other way. 

    This intolerance for others’ rules stretches to rule breaking. Many autistic people have their strong opinions on doing things the “right” way, which often extends to rule-breaking. For many, rule-breaking is more than intolerable. It is simply wrong. And if you aren’t going to bother doing things right, why do them at all?

    Coping strategies

    Change can be scary, and overwhelming, but it is often inevitable. Even exciting and typically positive changes, such as having a baby, can include aspects which are more difficult to adapt to. This isn’t exclusive to autistic children; adults can also struggle to deal with changes in their lives, though they may be expected to react “rationally” (people are typically more understanding with children’s meltdowns which can be dismissed by age). To manage changes, autistic people rely heavily on focusing beyond the change itself, to preparation and delivery of the change.

    There are some coping strategies to help autistic people deal with change. Preparation is key. With advance notice, autistic people can try and control the finer details of the change itself which may not be controllable. For example if the location of your dinner has to be rearranged last minute, finding a copy of the menu for the new place would allow someone to be familiar with the menu on arrival. Organising these mitigating factors can help an autistic person to feel more control, and therefore less discomforted by the change.

    Phasing between changes can also be incredibly comforting. I knew I wouldn’t live with my siblings forever and eventually our Christmas routine would have to change. The first year my sister moved out, she came to our house first thing Christmas morning; it was as if she hadn’t even moved. Then every year she arrived later and later, until now the routine involves all meeting up for lunch. Pushing it back little by little helped us all adjust to a big change in a very important routine.

    Some autistic people may struggle to cope with change,but it’s not impossible. Preparation, phasing and clear communication of change are all mitigating factors which might help autistic people navigate changes which can feel scary and overwhelming.

    If you find that all the preparation in the world can’t dim that overwhelmed feeling, you’re no less rational for being overwhelmed.

    Feel your feelings

    Ultimately, changes to a routine or rule can be scary and overwhelming, and that’s okay. It’s important for autistic people to feel validated in what can present as a very irrational response to something miniscule. Sometimes mitigating these changes can help autistic people adjust, and sometimes they can’t. If you find that all the preparation in the world can’t dim that overwhelmed feeling, you’re no less rational for being overwhelmed.

    Routines and rules are nothing to be ashamed of. If they help you to feel safe and comforted, if they help you to navigate your way through a world that can feel confusing or formidable, then they should be accepted and celebrated.

    References and Resources

  • 10 practices to make your workplace neurodiverse friendly

    10 Practices to make your workplace neurodiverse friendly

    When considering accessibility at work, many people jump to the conclusion that you need to make large scale changes to accommodate neurodiverse employees. But the reality is just a few small changes are often all that are needed. 

    And these changes don’t necessarily benefit neurodiverse workers either; most people at work will benefit from these policies in place.

    Below are 10 workplace policies you can implement to accommodate for neurodiverse employees:

    1. Establish a person’s preferred way of communication (and respect it)
    2. Only book meetings if they are necessary
    3. Edit emails so they don’t include unnecessary info, and format them
    4. Keep your meetings short, or schedule breaks
    5. Book in meetings as early as possible
    6. Send an agenda for meetings before hand (including any roles people will need to take on during the meeting) 
    7. Allow people to have their cameras off  
    8. Set reminders for meetings close to the time (10 mins before) 
    9. Clearly assign tasks to people 
    10. Allow stimming on internal calls 

    Many of these changes will benefit everyone; nobody will complain that they clearly knew what the meeting was going to be about!