Getting back into the world after lockdown – tips from a permanently awkward person to temporarily awkward ones

Since New Zealand’s lockdown has started easing and people can (and often, have to) start venturing outside again I have noticed a lot of friends feeling anxious in public, overwhelmed by the crowds, and hyper aware of the people around them. Existing in public is just a much harder experience for a lot of people than it used to be. Some of that is likely due to anxiety around the actual Covid-19 epidemic itself, but for some people another component seems to be becoming less used to the actual sensory experience involved, and difficulty added by the new social rules and expectations that suddenly exist.

Well, I can’t really help with the first part – the totally reasonable anxiety that comes from existing in a global pandemic – but that second one, feeling awkward and hyperaware of yourself and everyone else in public places while trying to navigate rules that you’re not quite used to yet – hey, that’s basically my life as an autistic person! I never feel comfortable in public, and I am always trying to consciously figure out what the rules are doing, because I sure as shit don’t have any sort of intuitive sense of them. So from one chronically awkward person to the newly-awkward, here are some tips I use for navigating the world when the world is loud and overwhelming.

Occupy your senses and your nervous energy

Piss off, noise

Autism is a condition that comes with sensory processing issues, and some of the ways we cope with this are seen in stereotypes of autism – think big headphones or earmuffs, fidget toys, and repetitive movements. People with ADHD or other neurodiversities will often employ some of these as well, along with the entire rest of the human population – fidgeting, listening to music, humming, tapping. These can all help people focus, burn off extra energy, or deal with sensory information, it’s just usually a bit less obvious or a bit more socially acceptable than the ways autistic people might sometimes cope. 

But hey, you’re not used to crowds any more, and suddenly just being out in public might be a whole lot more overwhelming than you remember. If that’s the case for you, it might be time to pay some conscious attention to your senses and the ways you can occupy them to avoid getting overwhelmed by the input that would otherwise be flooding in.

Figuring out what works for you personally might involve some trial and error – sensory heaven for one person can be hell for another, and work rules or safety reasons can limit the sorts of things you are able to wear and do. In general you have two main options for dealing with the senses that bother you – trying to reduce outside input, or actively using input to focus your senses on something pleasant – or at least something tolerable.

 Reducing outside input can be things like wearing gloves if you don’t like some textures, wearing sunglasses to dim bright lights (who cares if you wear them indoors? We’re basically living in a cyberpunk novel anyway), or using earplugs, earmuffs, or noise isolating headphones to reduce noise (specifically the headphones if you’re feeling self conscious). Pre-Covid it might have been hard to block out smells without being obvious, but now, no one is going to look twice if you’re wearing some sort of mask.

Sometimes blocking stuff out isn’t enough, and even though it might seem counterintuitive to add more input to your already overwhelmed brain, it can help to overpower the less pleasant input or give you something to focus on. Music, podcasts, or white noise and rain sounds (which you can download from podcast apps for free) can work wonders to drown out the fifty things vying for your attention (just, you know, keep an eye out for the things that actually require your attention, like traffic). Chewing gum can give you a taste to focus on and help with that jaw tension, and fidgeting – tapping, playing with jewellery,  playing with a pen, whatever works for you – can help burn off a bit of nervous tension if you need to. Getting a simple/mindless game or app on your phone can give you something to play around with as well and people will just think you’re an anti-social millennial stuck to your screen rather than a shambling wreck of a human who’s struggling not to fall apart. Ha! You fooled them!

Go in with a plan

I don’t just mean take a shopping list to the supermarket. If you’re feeling anxious, or you find yourself mind-blanking as soon as you’re in public, then plan as much of your journey as you need to, which may be a lot more than you would need to under “normal” circumstances. This planning can just be internal – picturing the route you’re going to take when you get off the bus – or it can be physical – a list of all the shops you need to visit at the mall and why, for example. Look up bus timetables (including backups if you miss the first one) and opening hours in advance. If you need to endure the horrors of shopping in a physical store, see if you can look up their stock online and figure out what you need ahead of time, or at least as much detail as you can, so you know what to look for (eg “flannel shirts in my size” or “a picture book for a two year old by a New Zealand author” instead of “clothes and a present for my niece.”) 

Basically, get as detailed as you need. If you love to go on long trips to the mall where you pick things out spontaneously, then you do you, you colossal weirdo. But if meeting a friend for lunch is making you anxious, look up the menu in advance and decide what you want to order – it’s one less thing you need to think about at the time and picturing what you’re doing in advance can help it become less nebulous. The idea is to deal with as much of the mental load as you can before you leave the house so you have less you need to worry about when you do. 

Don’t go out hungry

Or thirsty, or with an untreated headache. Sometimes this is impossible to avoid, of course, but control those negative things vying for your energy that you can, so you have more energy in the tank to deal with the things you can’t. Even if you’re meeting someone for lunch try to avoid getting on the bus absolutely starving. From experience – your friends will also thank you for it, you hangry-ass motherfucker.

Bathrooms are your friend – find moments of quiet

Sanctuary
Original image MARCEL DERWEDUWEN/SHUTTERSTOCK

Alright you’ve gone in fed and prepared, plan of attack on hand and epic music playing in your giant headphones and…. You still freak out. There’s just a lot going on, okay? It happens.

If you’re, say, second to the front in a one hour queue, it might be worth trying to tough it out so you don’t have to come back. But if you’re not, if you’re in a position where you are able to get out of there – it’s totally fine to just get out of there. Do that.

Sometimes you might just need a breather. Bathroom stalls are great for being a moment of solitude in busy places. Or go outside if you need to. Sit in your car if it’s nearby.  Find a quiet place like a library or a non-crowded cafe. Close your eyes, breathe, chill. Go back in when you’re ready – even if that’s not today. 

If you can’t get to a completely isolated area or public bathroom surfaces squick you out, then just find a seat or a wall somewhere that isn’t right in the middle of where people seem to be walking and whip out your book or a phone. Even if you aren’t actually reading/messaging anyone, pretend to – it gives you something to look at that isn’t crowds of people, and it helps create a barrier between you and the world. 

Another option, if it’s not rush hour traffic and you have a monthly pass or can spare the bus fare, is to jump on a bus or a train and just ride it for a bit. Then ride it back. Watching the scenery go by can be relaxing, and if the bus isn’t crowded you can get your own little pocket of space for a while.

Be selective with your company

Before you start deleting everyone off social media, I mean this in a moment-by-moment sense. Pay attention to how you feel when you’re shopping/out with people versus when you aren’t. Does going clothes shopping with a friend provide an extra feeling of stability or are they just one more thing to focus on when you’re already overwhelmed? Do you like to be silent and alone on public transport, or do you need the company? Maybe some friends with compatible communication styles and energy levels will be relaxing to travel with, and others will stress you out, even if you usually enjoy their company.

Figure out what works for you and, where possible, see if you can set up your trips out to work with your needs. If you get stressed shopping with other people, then that’s probably something you should do by yourself. If you prefer a quiet moment on the bus, arrange to meet people at places rather than travelling together. Sometimes this might require asking your friends to accommodate you (“can you come to the pharmacy with me? I need the support” or “I don’t want to go to a mall, can we do something else instead?”). Just be direct about what you need and be willing to accept no or to listen to what your friends need as well. This can sometimes come across as weird or awkward but I dunno, maybe we should normalise communicating directly about things we need?

Find out what the rules are

A friend of mine told me of her difficulty being out during level two of the lockdown: “I felt like I was in the wrong place all the time and in everyone’s way and like people were mad at me.” This succinctly describes my everyday life. A stereotype of autism is that you’re completely unaware of social rules and also don’t care about them, but for some it’s much more constant awkwardness, trying to manually figure out what it is we are supposed to be doing and consciously performing all the right actions.

I don’t say this to diminish my friend’s experience – it’s just an interesting way in which my awkward austistic self is a little bit more prepared for these extra social rules than some of my friends. You see, each level of the lockdown has something that pre-covid life lacked, and that is signposted rules of what you’re supposed to do. The government has its own rules online, and most shops and public places let you know what’s expected on their websites and on signs in shops themselves. This is like autistic heaven honestly – yes please give me micro descriptions of how I am supposed to act in public, I don’t know otherwise.

Except. People often don’t follow those rules, so it’s easy to end up second guessing yourself and feeling awkward anyway. Or sometimes we might just not see where the line starts and accidentally end up pushing in. At least, that’s what better have been going on, woman who walked in front of me at the dairy. 

I don’t really have any useful tips on how to make other people follow rules. All I can recommend is trying to make sure you find out what they are so at least you know you’re right. This just means paying a bit of active attention to surroundings whether that’s actual sign posts or scanning for where the queues are. I don’t know how to feel less awkward about it, I mostly just get through life trying to pay enough attention to avoid doing anything hideously embarrassing. But sometimes you might, which brings me to my final point.

It’s okay to ask, it’s okay to be wrong

Shit is weird, the rules are different, and not everyone is following them anyway. We’re anxious and confused and if we’re not at our best right now that’s pretty understandable. So if you’re really freaking out about doing the wrong thing, then ask someone who works there – from a polite distance. Pay attention to your own personal space and signs of discomfort in those you are talking to – if someone keeps stepping away from you, maybe stop approaching, even if it’s not the distance you normally consider polite.
And if you are wrong, then that’s okay. Just apologise, move on, and don’t yell at the poor retail worker who had to tell you – they’re stuck out here.

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Autistic people are fucking funny: One Autistic woman’s review of Hannah Gadsby’s Douglas

 

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Pictured: Hannah Gadsby. Also DOUGLAS, clearly an excellent boi

Last weekend I saw the Auckland showing of Hannah Gadsby’s comedy show Douglas at the Civic. Here are a bunch of thoughts about it, but feel free to ignore them and make your own when the show comes out on Netflix later this year

At the beginning of her show Hannah Gadsby wonders why the hell anyone would be there if they hadn’t seen her previous show, Nanette. Somewhat guiltily, I remember that show is still languishing about ten minutes in on my Netflix ‘continue watching’ list and has been for over a year, when I’d heard amazing things about it but was just a bit too much in the throes of a depressive episode to deal with watching the entire thing. So I’m that mysterious audience member, but no, I haven’t just wandered into the wrong building, or thought I was seeing a set by that cool cop chick from Wellington Paranormal. I know exactly why I’m there, same as the two friends I’ve come with (though they have actually watched Nanette): Because I’d heard Douglas was a show that dealt with autism, by an autistic woman, and it was super fucking funny.

One of the annoyingly persistent stereotypes about autistic people is that they don’t understand humour. One article traces this back to scientist and Nazi collaborator Hans Asperger, who showed autistic kids a bunch of cartoons and concluded that their lack of mirth showed they lacked any sense of humour. I feel Hannah Gadsby would have something to say about some dude declaring an entire group of people don’t understand humour because they didn’t laugh at his jokes. Nevertheless, as many other things that some dude decide to go and say, the idea persisted.

Hannah Gadsby doesn’t mention this idea of autistic people being seen as humourless in her show, and in many ways it probably is better she doesn’t draw attention to the idea. There’s a lot of other issues and a lot of other jokes she does spotlight, and I don’t see how any of them would be especially improved if she was discussing them through a lens that doubted she could make jokes in the first place. Gadsby was a comedian before she knew she had autism, and as much as many of her detractors would disagree, she doesn’t need to prove she’s funny. She is, and the audience spends a lot of the show in stitches.

I still feel the need to talk about that stereotype though, even if maybe it would be better to just collectively never mention it again. I’ve heard it enough times that it sinks into my psyche and pisses me off, and on my worst days it does make me doubt my own competency. It’s amazing seeing a whole theatre full of people cracking up as an autistic woman makes jokes, many of them about her diagnosis. Hannah Gadsby always punches up, and it’s empowering to be able to laugh along with people at jokes where autism is the topic, but not the target.

Autism isn’t a side note in Douglas, even if it’s a side note in a lot of reviews I’ve read that seem wanting largely to keep discussing Nanette. But it is one of a number of threads along with history and art and feminism that all tie up into a show that’s just really damn good. I haven’t said much about the show’s content in this post, and that’s partially because everyone should watch it for themselves when it comes out on Netflix later this year, and partially because reviews are kind of weird and I don’t know how to write them. 

If you have autism, watch Douglas, it’s amazing and empowering and really, really, funny. If you don’t have autism, watch it anyway, it’s still hilarious. If you hate feminism, watch it, because you’ll get mad and you probably deserve to be mad.

 

Autism and empathy through a customer service perspective

New Zealand and Australia have recently seen a big investigation into the conduct and culture of the area I work in (insurance and banking). How companies deal with customers, especially those in vulnerable situations, is under increased scrutiny and as a result a number of companies including the one I work for are rethinking their processes including how they train, empower, and incentivise front line (eg call centre) staff. This is generally a good thing for customers, but a recent training session around empathy in difficult situations also got me thinking about both the challenges and the advantages those of us on the spectrum have in a customer service context.

Autism and empathy is a pretty contentious topic with a big misconception that autism equates to or at least inevitably causes a significant lack of empathy. This is often tied in with the irritating extreme male brain theory, which seems to insult both autistic people and males in equal measure (honestly it seems like a male researcher basing a theory on men being biologically bad at emotions and caring about others is saying more about himself than anything).

More nuanced views on the topic point out that there are different types and mechanisms of empathy, and even if autistic people do have difficulties with some of the specific ways neurotypical people generally show empathy, this doesn’t translate to a lack of it altogether. Other research posits that many of the empathy-related difficulties perceived as being part of autism are actually related to a distinct but often comorbid condition, alexithymia – difficulty recognising emotions. However even when people did have both autism and alexithymia, they still showed distress at other people’s pain and demonstrated prosocial behaviour. I’m nowhere near enough of an expert to try to give a definitive answer to the topic, but I am definitely coming from the perspective, increasingly supported by both researchers and autistic people themselves, that autistic people definitely feel empathy and care about other people, even if they don’t show it in exactly the same ways.

In discussing how we might interact with customers dealing with recently deceased family members, the person taking the session divided empathetic action into two facets (once again probably not fitting with the latest scientific understandings of empathy but pretty helpful in this context): what empathy sounds like in a customer service setting and how it is shown. 

How empathy “sounds” was definitely the one I have trouble with. Nailing the right tone and pace, sounding like you care without being fake, knowing what to say to a stranger that’s in an awful situation – these are all things I can struggle with. As much as I do feel for the person in these situations, I just never know what to say. 

We then discussed how empathy “looks” in our call centre context, and this was a different story. Empathy could be shown by getting everything the caller needed done, and using your expertise to anticipate their needs. It was things like making sure updates were made across the board, so someone didn’t get a document a month later with their dead family member still listed in some forgotten section. Details like this are things I am really good at catching, and trying to make the process as easy as I can – in an administrative way, at least – is how I have focused on trying to help customers in the past. Not always in a negative context either – catching that someone’s contents insurance policy is set up to send notifications to their partner when they’ve just secretly added an engagement ring is pretty important in making sure a special moment isn’t ruined in the most banal possible way. 

Of course, both these types of empathy are important, and I still do what I can to try and “sound” appropriate (often by utilising a different set of scripting; “take care” rather than “enjoy your afternoon”). But I figure so long as I can avoid being completely insulting, showing empathy by efficiency and anticipating their needs is an important skill too – after all they’re not calling up for counselling, they’re calling up to get stuff sorted, and it’s my role to make this as painless as possible. 

Going forward I think I will just focus on sounding clear and competent – not stumbling over my words even if I don’t know exactly how I should be speaking – and getting everything done. I have colleagues who seem to know exactly how to sound lovely and empathetic, and that’s truly a great skill, but it’s not one I’m going to develop overnight, and in the meantime it feels worse to sound awkward or stumble over my words because I’m trying to act out someone I’m not. 

It was just a little thing, but this workshop on empathy in the call centre did help me feel that my specific set of skills could also be important in making a difficult situation easier for someone, and that action and efficiency is itself a way itself to show you care. It also got me thinking about why autistic people are perceived as not being empathetic. I really feel for the people I talk to, but if we were just being judged on how well we give verbal condolences, it probably wouldn’t look like it.  But I do make every effort to help my customers out, and I’m glad my work can recognise the value of that as well. 

The positives of working in a call centre when you’re autistic (or otherwise inclined to think of customer service as a purgatorial nightmare)

shitty drawing

Pictured: The vocational equivalent of the shrug emoji

Okay, so there aren’t going to be many people, autistic or otherwise, who really want to work in a call centre. But if you’re new to the workforce, studying, or just not very good at interviews (so, like a lot of autistic people…) then working in a call centre is likely going to be one of the more attainable entry level options, along with things like hospo, retail, and other jobs that tend to share a lot of the same negatives that call centre work has anyway. Yes, the very limitations that make you bad at customer service are the same limitations that are likely to get you stuck doing it. Hooray!

So this post definitely isn’t “why working in a call centre is an amazing thing all autistic people should do” so much as “if you need to pay the bills and you’re not able to land your dream job right now, here are some things to consider when comparing call centre work to the other types of entry-level service jobs you might be eyeing up while crying and regretting your life choices.”

Obviously not all call centre jobs are exactly the same, and neither are all autistic people. I’m aiming to churn out a few more posts on working in a call centre with autism in the next while, because I spend a lot of my week right now working in a call centre and even more of my week being autistic. So without further ado, here are the positives of working in a call centre even if you’re the sort of person who freaks out at the idea of using the phone to order takeaways:

  1. It’s not face-to-face

Often when I tell someone where I work, they will tell me that they could never possibly work in a call centre, because talking on the phone, like, ew, god no. The funny thing is, some of the people who have said this to me work in face-to-face customer service jobs, like at the supermarket, where you can see the queues piling up and customers can yell at you in person.

Most people aren’t as used to talking on the phone as we are talking to face-to-face, so I can totally get it seeming more daunting than other customer service roles – I was pretty freaked out by the idea before I started (and for like six months after I started, let’s be honest). I didn’t know I had autism until I’d already been doing call centre work for a while, but looking back on it, even though many of my struggles at work have been related to autism symptoms, my job on the phones also allows me to avoid or compensate for a lot of the other social difficulties I have in other situations.

For a start, there is no eye contact, no facial expressions and no body language that you have to figure out or perform. There’s just you, the phone, and a computer full of reference materials that can prompt you if you get stuck. Not only does this avoid the exhaustion of having to constantly worry about the signals your body language is giving off, you can straight up do your job while stimming, pacing, making weird facial expressions, or even giving the fingers to the phone and whoever is on the other side of it. Your voice may be asking what else you can help the person who called right before closing time with today, but your middle fingers are not beholden to this lie.

upyours
“I’m so thankful you told me you realised your issue wasn’t my fault before yelling at me anyway”

You also only have to deal with one call at a time – no one can cut queues or interrupt what you’re doing, and you can take a moment to breathe and type your notes after the last customer before moving on to the next. I promise you not everyone that calls is angry (well, maybe they will be if you take calls for the bus service or something) but even when you do get angry callers they aren’t physically in the room with you, and when the call ends, they’re gone and you can bitch about them to your co workers. You can also turn down the volume on loud people, turn it up on quiet people, or put someone on hold if you really need a moment to collect yourself.

So yes – talking on the phone, a lot of people aren’t keen on that. But not having to deal with customers face to face is actually a pretty great bonus, because people really suck are hard to deal with when you have autism.

  1. Scripting is kind of expected

This probably does vary a bit depending on your specific job but I’ve worked for a couple of different in- and outbound call centres and they all have basically provided consultants with scripts for different situations or encouraged us to write our own. Sure they want us to sound natural, but mostly they want us to do our job and not fuck it up, so suggested scripting is a big thing. The contrarian ADHD part of my brain finds this a little stifling, but honestly, my autistic side realises the benefits of being in a job where if I have to talk constantly, at least there is a list of the acceptable ways to say hello.

script

  1. Call centre work sticks to a schedule

To be fair this one is part positive and part negative. When you work in a call centre you tend to be told when you start and finish, when you get your breaks, when you are on the phones and when you are doing training or meetings or whatever the hell else. Usually your schedule will be available down to the 15 minute increments several weeks in advance.This means you know what’s coming and you can mentally prepare yourself, plus the issue of figuring what you should be doing right at this moment is sorted out for you.

It does also mean you generally can’t be as flexible about breaks as you can with other office jobs, and you have to apply for leave a long while in advance to make sure you can get it. But unlike, say, a lot of hospo jobs, your hours are your hours and you get paid for all of them – the call centre colossus works in your favour because it’s not going to guilt you into staying without overtime or skipping lunch.

  1. It just pays a lot better than some of the alternatives

This one is pretty simple, although I’m going off New Zealand statistics. Payscale.com lists the median wage for call centre workers as just over $19NZ. For baristas and bartenders it’s a little under $17, for retail $16.74, and for checkout operators $16.50. Note these four are all under the new minimum wage of $17.70, so the exact numbers will change soon, but you can see it’s still the difference between a job that basically skirts minimum wage and one that starts a few dollars over it. Once again it’s less about call centres being amazing and more about them being the least bad option of a bunch of entry level customer service gigs. There are a decent number of call centres that pay more than 20 bucks an hour, and at least unlike minimum wage they’re not implicitly telling you they’d pay you less if it were legally possible to do so. Yay?

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You can use that extra $2hr for things like fruit, or coffee, or even both at once if you are passing by Pour & Twist and feeling extravagant

  1. Practicing the things you suck at does eventually make them suck less

No, working in a call centre is not a wonderful uplifting journey of self development and learning funtime. But you do learn. In my experience you learn kicking and screaming while anxious, overwhelmed, and desperately pretending that you actually have real social skills, but you learn. My autistic ass is now a lot better at talking on the phone than many of the generally more socially gifted asses of my friends. On top of that, I’ve gained an inside view of how customer service works and how to efficiently and politely communicate what you need to customer service reps – which is a pretty handy skill to have, and not one that came naturally to me either (I used to pretty much just hide from shop assistants while desperately trying to google the answers they could have given me).

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Pictured: (early) 21st century horror

Maybe one day I’ll manage to buff up those interview skills and actually get a job that uses any of my actual skills instead of the things I’m terrible at. But for now, at least if customers yell at me I can pull faces at them from afar.

What is this blog about?

Hi there, I’m a twenty-something New Zealand woman who has recently been diagnosed with autism (type 1/what used to be called aspergers) after struggling for many years with my mental health. While learning about and coming to terms with my autism I’ve really enjoyed reading and watching various bloggers and youtubers who are also on the spectrum. I’ve decided to start my own blog (and perhaps later look at making some videos as well) to add to the content out there – especially since most of the sources I found were from the UK or US, and things tend to work a little differently here in Aotearoa. I’m primarily writing with an autistic audience in mind, but if anything interests or is relevant to non-autistic people, that’s great as well!

I was postgrad studying social science at uni until recently and that was initially going to be a focus for my writing here. But then life happened, and I had to drop out, at least for now, for mental health reasons. On the one hand I hate this. On the other, finally knowing what has been the cause of some of my problems is giving me renewed hope I can sort my life out now that I have a better understanding of why I struggle with certain things. 

I have some ideas for things I plan to write but I’ll probably also let things branch out naturally/write whatever the hell I feel like at the time. To get an idea of what I might end up writing about here are a few things about me and areas I might be looking into:

  • My attempts to crawl out of the depression hole and become healthier, more organised and functional, with a focus on trying to find things that work for my ASD/ADHD brain
  • Discussions, observations and my limited wisdom about living in New Zealand as an autistic person
  • I’m currently finishing off postgrad in social science so both social science and the delights of stumbling my way through uni with (undiagnosed until very recently) autism are likely to come up
  • I currently work in a call centre for a corporation and have had some other customer service jobs before, so expect some musings on how these sorts of jobs interact with an autistic brain from my perspective
  • I’m trying to get better at adulting and taking care of myself/organise my environment and all that sort of generic millennial bullshit so if I find anything that seems helpful to my autistic ass I’ll probably write about that as well
  • Relatedly, I’ll probably do some product/service reviews from an autistic perspective and report back as I try out some of the products the internet tells me are good for autism. As of writing this, this is just a silly newb blog so I’m definitely paying for anything I will be reviewing and have 0 sponsors or anything like that, but I’m a big fan of transparency so if that ever changes I’ll make it clear.
  • I’ve also been diagnosed with ADHD, and had struggles with anxiety and depression so these are all likely to come up at some point
  • I will probably rant about things at some point, not gonna lie
  • I will probably also write about vaguely related things I am interested in, as the mood takes me
  • …..dogs?