Friday 31 December 2010

New Years Resolutions

Welcome back,

I hope that everybody reading this blog has had a good Christmas! Now that it is New Years' Eve, some readers, particularly those in Australia, will see in 2011 earlier than some, now is the time for putting together New Year Resolutions. In relation to the eight week course that I completed earlier this month, among my resolutions for 2011, is to be more in tune with the present, rather than stuck in the past or being too 'anxious' about the future.

Right now in the present moment, I find myself procrastinating about what are going to be my New Years' Resolutions. It is one resolution to have to be more in tune with the present, but to be more in tune with the present it helps to be doing something in the present. I have to admit that over the Christmas holidays I have found out just how laxadazical I can be at home, which can be made worse by the distractions of what's on television, not to mention the abundance of Quality Street, Roses and various other eatables there tends to be around during the festive period.

Despite having had some difficulty coming up with resolutions on New Years' Eve, in my previous blog entry I mentioned that something that I would try and pursue more was the potential that the virtual environment within Second Life has in terms of being able to increase awareness of Asperger's Syndrome further as well as give training to possibly bigger audiences without me having to travel to venues or participants having to travel to venues. This is a resolution that I can expand into social networks and the world wide web generally, particularly as my personal website needs modernising. I am sure that most of you who have seen it will perhaps agree that it looks a little old by today's standards. But I am also aware that there is much I need to both learn and unlearn to enable this.

Hopefully, being in tune with the present will help me in what looks like being a busy month when we will be making preparations for recruiting our first software testers. What we don't often realise is that through temporary loss of awareness of the present is how when the present moment unwinds, it often influences the next moment. This in particular applies to decision-making, something that we will be doing much of at Autism Works early in 2011, I hope I am ready!

A note for me to finish on though on the subject of this entry, New Years' Resolutions, is that often, at the turn of each year, when we make our resolutions, an important one we often forget is to make is to see them through, in the sense that we say we are going to do this and that and don't often do it. Though I can't promise anything special, I'll try and make this effort when the time is right in 2011.

All the best for 2011,

Thursday 23 December 2010

Seasons Greetings in the Virtual Environment

Merry Christmas and welcome back to Adventures with Autism Works,

This week, the adventure has taken me into a new world, the virtual world of Second Life, where I was invited to a Christmas party after having been a member for just two days. Such virtual environments are beneficial to many people on the autistic spectrum in the sense that they can take away the anxiety that they may face when going into social situations where they don't know anyone. For me though, getting used to the social conventions of the virtual world has helped me revisit the period of my life prior to my diagnosis, thus enabling me to see my surroundings from a refreshed perspective.

An aspect that I have found helpful from the eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction course I have recently completed is approaching situations, including those that are new to you and those you are used to from a beginner's mindset. When giving talks and training on Asperger's Syndrome, a technique that I often use to gain an idea of how it may actually feel to be a person with Asperger's Syndrome is to imagine yourself in a foreign country where nobody speaks English, so you can ask directions. Added to that, there are no English translations on any of the road signs, so you can find your way around. Such situations can be anxiety-inducing to anyone, but the confused and anxious feelings we may experience can be similar to how it can be to be a person with Asperger's Syndrome in normal life.

Though people on the autistic spectrum can feel more comfortable in a virtual environment with the absence of non-verbal communication (e.g. facial expressions), attending a social event within Second Life for me was like experiencing parties in the real world as a person with Asperger's Syndrome! There are so many things that you can do in a virtual environment unknown in the real world, including walk through walls, teleport from place-to-place and even fly like Superman! Additionally, I also have the issue that I don't take to new technology as quickly as some, like Peter, my colleague here at Autism Works, does being from an IT background. Though Peter has admitted that he has felt a little nervous at times in Second Life in terms of knowing what the 'expected behaviour' is.

However, I can see the huge potential that a concept like Second Life has for Autism Works as well as for my own autism and Asperger's Syndrome training through being able to deliver training as well as being able to recruit within a virtual environment. Being able to secure employment within a virtual environment where one doesn't have to balance eye-contact and other non-verbal cues with speech could be of great benefit to many people on the spectrum. When giving training on autism and Asperger's Syndrome, being able to do it in  Second Life would save a lot of travelling time, not to mention the stress of travelling in the current adverse weather conditions we are experiencing here in the UK, and would also be able to invite a wider audience, to raise awareness further.

Over the Christmas break, I will try to make an effort to become more accustomed to Second Life so that I can take full advantage of its potential. I would like to say thank you to Serendipity (real name Thomas) for helping me integrate into my first virtual party and I would also like to wish all readers a very Merry Christmas.

Seasons Greetings,


Friday 17 December 2010

Speeding up, slowing down and coming into the present (including buying them)

Welcome Back to Adventures with Autism Works,

Hope you are all ready for Christmas, and that the stress that the preparations as well as what Christmas shopping can bring isn't getting to you! I went into a few busy stores in Newcastle last weekend to get some presents for my nieces, all the mums were running around looking for the bargains, while the dads were looking for the exits!

Something that I am noticing within the working environment is the interesting paradox that the Season of Goodwill can bring, in terms of how quiet and slow work can be largely because many of us are away or on leave for Christmas, but outside of work just how much of a mad rush society can suddenly become in the weeks leading up to the big day. After finally completing my eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction course this week, bringing the qualities I have managed to find during practice into everyday life situations I have noticed just how much this time of year can bring one out of one's comfort zone. For much of the year, it is largely the opposite way, with it being busy at work and then evenings and weekends, for the main part, providing much needed respite.

An aspect that I find of mindfulness meditation practised both within Buddhism as well as in a secular context that helps during the Christmas period is how it helps one to live in the present moment, as often in the run up to Christmas we await the big day and then when it comes it can be an anti-climax and then before we know it, the new year is rung in and it is the January-February blues. Being in the present moment gives us more freedom to step back from the flow during the Season of Goodwill, thus focusing on the true meaning of Christmas.

In the working environment, being in the present moment has helped me focus on tasks that can be done when it is quieter than normal including updating the Autism Works marketing database, an enjoyable job if you like detail as well as continuing to develop the Autism Works Operating Manuals, including an employee handbook to help our first employees whom we hope to recruit early in 2011. Developing the recruitment tools, including the application forms, was hard enough to do with extremely little in the way of good practice examples to build upon. The employee handbook though involves shaping the needs of a workforce with ASC around necessary employment law and good business practice. Fortunately though, I have the support at Autism Works and at ESPA to help keep me on track within a field that like much of what I have experienced in the four months it is now that I have been working at Autism Works, largely unknown territory.

Regarding Christmas shopping, to avoid too much hustle and bustle within the shopping centres, I have bought most of my gifts online this year. Keeping in spirit with the true meaning of Christmas, I like to see happiness in relation not just to receiving gifts, but also when those you have bought gifts for like your gift ideas, as after all it is the thought that counts.

Be sure to continue to follow this blog and to check the Autism Works website and Facebook page for further developments during a quiet season. And remember, keep the Facebook 'likes' coming!

Seasons Greetings!

Friday 10 December 2010

Directness and Honesty

Welcome back,

Over the last fortnight, the adventures with Autism Works has extended beyond the office, with Peter attending meetings with a large potential client in London as well as attending the National Autistic Society's Undiscovered Workforce conference, while I have also been in London to give training this week.

At the conference, Peter felt he learned much from Sarah Hewitt's work within BT. Sarah, who is diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, works as a Technical Consultant with BT and has since played a very instrumental role both within and beyond BT in terms of making employment more accessible to people on the autistic spectrum, as well as supporting people on the autistic spectrum within employment. I have also been privileged to hear Sarah speak on two occasions, and I have to say that her insight as well as the support that she has had from her managers at BT has really helped me with my tasks of developing the Autism Works recruitment process, especially in relation to the limitation of good practice examples available on employment and Asperger's Syndrome.

It was from Sarah's speech at the National Audit Office in October 2009 and BT's Director of People and Policy Caroline Waters' speech that I picked up on effective reasonable adjustments to recruitment processes as well as what I felt had held me back within my own employment history. Reasonable adjustments that Sarah felt she benefited from and that BT had learned regarding the diversity of their workforce were that it helped to, where possible, avoid asking open questions. If you have read my previous blog entries, you will know that over the last two weeks I have been working on designing the application forms for Autism Works, avoiding where possible asking open questions. The forms have since been tested on some of the ESPA students who have given us some really positive feedback, so I guess I can say that they have 'passed the first test'.

Working together from within and outside the autistic spectrum, Peter and I learn so much from each other. In previous employment, I would often worry when asked to be seen by a colleague or supervisor if I was in some sort of trouble due to a professional or social convention I either hadn't observed or broken when unaware, not to mention the consequences it had on others to which I may have been blind to. It is so refreshing for me though that Peter is first to admit that he often feels more comfortable in the Asperger world than the Neuro-Typical world, particularly in relation to 'normal' being a setting on a washing machine! What he says that he likes best about the Asperger world is its directness and honesty, and that progress within large business could be so much quicker as well as products produced being more reliable if they were dominated by people with Asperger's Syndrome!

On this note, the reasonable adjustments made by the likes of BT and Goldman Sachs through their work with NAS Prospects and further built upon at Autism Works as well as the positive meetings Peter has had with our potential clients hopefully go a long way towards enabling wider access to employment for people on the spectrum.

Be sure to revisit this space for further progress updates.

PS. Two weeks ago, in my post Thinking Outside the Box, I talked about the Nine Dots exercise. Here is the answer:

Friday 3 December 2010

Adverse weather conditions and attention to detail

Hello All,

Chances are that those of you in the UK reading this blog will have experienced the challenges of coping with adverse weather conditions this week as I also have. In relation to my interest in and practice of mindfulness, an aspect of being diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome that I find fascinating is how we adapt to different situations, including weather conditions.

Those diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome may well have experienced change or unusual circumstances being difficult to deal with in relation to the condition, particularly if we are 'set in our ways'.  But what we often don't realise at the point of change or unusual circumstances including adverse weather conditions where we find ourselves having to dig paths to our front door, scrape ice off car windscreens, dig ourselves out of car parks however long it takes us, is just what we learn about our abilities when they are tested in such circumstances.

Students of history and sociology will tell us that many technological and social innovations we take for granted now originate from human ingenuity being tested in extreme environments, from sailing into the unknown to finding unknown land masses to visiting the Moon. Like with extreme weather conditions, because we can't plan for them, even with modern conveniences such as weather forecasts available on iPhones, it helps to focus on what we can do in such circumstances, rather than get frustrated with limitations on what we can do.

In relation to tasks at Autism Works, something that not being able to get out of the office this week has enabled me to concentrate on are the tasks that some would perhaps find a little mundane or boring but for me as an Aspie, in relation to attention to detail, which I consider to be one of my personal strengths in relation to my Asperger's Syndrome, I find quite enjoyable. I have continued to update the Autism Works marketing database, including checking addresses and where necessary amending E-mail addresses. In relation to the qualities of attention to detail and persistence as well as patience required to undertake it appropriately and accurately, it is giving me an understanding and appreciation of a Software Tester's job.

Prior to joining Autism Works, the only real IT experience that I had was what I needed to know about the subject to be able to use technology for professional and social purposes, with little actual practical knowledge of its workings. But for when we recruit our first software testers, an understanding of the world they work in as well as tasks and challenges that they will face, will hopefully help me in developing positive relationships with them in relation to any support they may need in making the transition into employment.

Conditions permitting, be sure to watch this space for further developments at Autism Works.

Friday 26 November 2010

Thinking outside the box

Welcome back to Adventures with Autism Works,

This week at Autism Works has offered plenty of challenges from designing an autism-friendly application form to coping with Arctic weather conditions! I have continued working on designing the application forms as well as drafting the guidance notes for applicants over the last few days, which is proving to be a hard yet very fulfilling, and at times, entertaining task. Most importantly though for me, from this task I am finding that there is so much that the eye doesn't see.

It may be assumed that being a person on the autistic spectrum, I shouldn't have too many problems being able to develop an autism-friendly application form. In my previous entry, I talked about the problem of not having any good practice examples of practice to build upon, but the other factor that makes the task difficult even as an individual on the autistic spectrum is being aware that whatever I include in the form may make sense through my own eyes, but may not through the eyes of others on the autistic spectrum. This is where the ESPA students can help when we eventually test the forms on them, possibly over the next two weeks.

A theme that was talked about at my meditation class earlier in the week was about seeing the fulfilment is undertaking and eventually completing a task, however challenging, in terms of what it will bring. In this case, an autism-friendly recruitment process. An aspect that meditation practice has really helped me with most of all though for the challenges that I am facing is being able to think 'outside the box'. Chances are that some of you reading this blog may have come across or attempted the nine dots puzzle where the challenge is to connect a square of nine dots, like the one below, using four lines.

For those who have attempted the nine dots puzzle, did you assume that the  answer lay within the square formed by the dots? Go on, admit it! Without giving too much away to those who haven't attempted it, you may want to look a little further.

These and other qualities from meditation practice are really helping me to enjoy the challenge that my duties at Autism Works are presenting. As well as the tasks that involve thinking outside the box, there are also those that require concentration and attention to detail, including updating the company database. From beyond the autistic spectrum, the tasks that require concentration and attention to detail may appear to be more 'in line' with Asperger's Syndrome than those that require thinking outside the box, but for me though, it is a good mix. When interchanging between different tasks, I am finding it helpful to start with a refreshed mind each time, as what it is that can so often block our thinking is when we become 'lost' or 'stuck' in something specific, including writing this blog entry!

From the early feedback on the application forms and guidance that I have put together this week, I feel that we are making progress, but the acid test though will come when we test them on the ESPA students. Be sure to revisit Adventures with Autism Works to see how the journey continues to unfold.


Friday 19 November 2010

Testing Uncharted Waters

After a week of being in meetings and debates surrounding the development of the Autism Works recruitment policy, this week has seen me going out there and actually meeting the ESPA students, including the Training and Awareness (TAG) Group, to test our recruitment material, including application forms, on them as well as gather any suggestions they may have.

The students are an interesting and certainly entertaining group to work with, not to mention that there were some interesting individual responses to the concept of Autism Works. When Peter Macdonald, Managing Director at Autism Works, and myself introduced ourselves and Autism Works, and as soon as I mentioned that I am also on the autistic spectrum, the attention and questions immediately turned towards me, completely ignoring Peter! They may have been slightly surprised to see someone on the autistic spectrum on the other side of the table. Nonetheless though they made both Peter and myself feel very welcome.

It is a delight to get to work with the students not just for their hospitality but also their input is highly likely to be of great help to us. In my last blog entry, I talked about the difficulties that go with being on the other side of the recruitment table, but one of the aspects that makes developing the recruitment policy hard is lack of availability of good practice to replicate or build upon. Though there is now a lot of good books and guidance on employment and autism available, we have been unable to find a template to work from to produce an autism friendly application form. This is where hopefully the feedback from and any suggestions that the students will help us to make the process as autism-friendly as possible. It is often surprising what one may have missed in the eyes of outsiders, which is why we are looking at testing what are for us, uncharted waters, by trying out our recruitment procedures on the students as part of the Employability strand within the ESPA curriculum.

The biggest challenge that I am finding difficultly with, is being on the recruiting side of the table, particularly when developing the application form, because you are doing it from a recruiting perspective, it isn't always apparent that certain questions you devise make sense to you but may not make sense through the eyes of applicants. From the various presentations and practices that we have looked at, as well as looking at it from my own Asperger perspective, it is certainly helpful to ask closed rather than open or abstract questions, particularly as it is possible that applicants on the autistic spectrum could interpret abstract questions quite literally.

An aspect of me that Peter has noticed, and readers may also have noticed this from the titles of my blog posts, including this one, is that I seem to be able to interpret and understand metaphors much better than I used to. Though this is a good thing in that it helps me not to take things literally, at the same time I forget how an applicant with Asperger's Syndrome may answer a sample application question: 'Can you please describe your experience with computers?', one may provide an answer such as: 'I use my personal computer to surf the net, play games and watch videos.' Through non-Asperger eyes, such an answer on an application form can be seen as inappropriate or even 'stupid', but through Asperger eyes such an answer is more than valid, as after all it is answering the question but not providing the answer others are looking for.

Something that was discussed at meditation class this week that I have found helpful in my work is the ability to see things from a beginners mindset, as it is often surprising what gets lost as one becomes advanced. There is much that needs to be learned and unlearned when developing an autism-friendly recruitment policy that the wider world will benefit from. To help us, we welcome any suggestions that any readers may have, and certainly if anyone knows of any existing autism-friendly application form templates, please let us know.

In the meantime, be sure to visit again soon for more adventures in Autism Works.

Friday 12 November 2010

Sitting on the other side of the table

Welcome back,

After a spell of campaigning as well as watching our Facebook profile continue to grow steadily in relation to the numbers of 'likes' we have been getting from places as diverse as London, Brisbane, Kuala Lumpur, Buenos Aires to name but a few, this week sees my adventures with Autism Works venture into, what is for me, uncharted territory. For the first time in my working life, I am involved in developing a recruitment strategy and in due course will be involved on the other side of the interview table, all of which will be a huge learning curve for me.

Like many adults with Asperger's Syndrome, including those I know personally who read this blog can relate, I have many times experienced the frustration of being unsuccessful at interview after interview to the point where I have felt that the interview panel has prejudged me or that it is just 'impossible' for me to obtain employment through this method. When one sees such outcomes through disappointed or frustrated eyes, so many criticisms of the interview process and organisational practice arise, including face-value judgement and wondering whether or not a particular candidate from within the organisation was 'picked out' beforehand.

Now though, as Operations Manager at Autism Works, one of my main duties is to assist in developing the company's recruitment strategy. So far, it has been apparent to me when working on the recruitment policy just what a novice I am in this area! But this is largely though because I have never been involved on this side of the recruitment process professionally. Though my MA (Hons) in Information Management, which I completed back in 2001, covered recruitment practice, over time much of this been lost because I have never had the opportunity to put it into practice.

What I have got to appreciate already though and will no doubt do when Autism Works eventually shortlists and interviews for its first software testing positions, early in 2011, is just how hard it is on the other side of the table, especially since our task at Autism Works is to develop a recruitment process that goes beyond conventional practices, so that it is both manageable for and supportive towards adults on the autistic spectrum. What we are sure that we can expect is that when we publicise our first software testing positions is that we will most likely be inundated with applications, and we can only initially offer two positions. All week at Autism Works we have had concerns about raising expectations too early as well as how we will handle a possible huge number of disappointments, in terms of what we can offer unsuccessful candidates. 

Having been through the disappointments and frustrations on the other side, when attempting to develop a recruitment policy that positively discriminates towards adults on the autistic spectrum, it is so often easy to forget that one can approach it more openly and creatively rather than conventionally. Forming an autism-friendly recruitment policy has involved adding supportive elements, which each time, when added at meetings I have found myself thinking 'why didn't I think of that'.

The biggest challenge of developing a recruitment strategy, especially for people on the autistic spectrum, is that whatever model an organisation implements, it can never be perfect, like whichever model of democracy a government implements, they can never get it quite right. This will be a huge challenge to me in that it will most likely involve having to learn from mistakes, a technique that I have so often struggled to master throughout my working life, but will also present me with an opportunity to see myself and my capabilities through different eyes, going from excessive heartache from unsuccessful job interviews to seeing it from the other side of the table. 

Be sure to keep up-to-date Adventures with Autism Works soon for further developments, and remember to keep circulating us through Facebook.


Friday 5 November 2010

Magic Numbers!

Welcome back,

First of all, we would like to say thank you to everybody who joined us in supporting the Communication Shutdown campaign, even if it felt isolated being without Facebook or Twitter for a day, and I would like personally thank Jonathan Miles and the staff at BBC Radio Newcastle for giving the campaign the recognition we felt it deserved, especially in relation to its effectiveness in raising much-needed global awareness of autism. We would also like to continue to thank those of you who have visited our Facebook page and 'liking' us as well as passing it onto friends.

Within the autistic community, opinion appeared to be largely mixed in terms of whether or not to take part in Communication Shutdown, with some people on the autistic spectrum feeling uneasy about having to do without what they felt were the only social environments they felt comfortable in. As a person with Asperger's Syndrome myself, I can fully understand this, but at the same time it is important to realise that the purpose of the campaign was to give people not on the autistic spectrum an idea of how it may feel to be on the autistic spectrum in relation to social isolation that non-access to the social networks can present, not to be a disadvantage to people on the autistic spectrum.

When speaking on BBC Radio Newcastle earlier in the week, I talked to DJ Jonathan Miles about how it is not only the unconnected feeling that non-access to the social networks can create in relation to how largely dependent on them we have come, but also how a slip of the finger can unintentionally offend other users similar to how in physical social environments, non-awareness of facial expressions can be easily misunderstood. When admitting that he would find it difficult to manage without Facebook and Twitter for a day, Miles also said that we had set ourselves quite a task with Sunderland apparently having the highest number of social network users in the United Kingdom!

It was a great privilege to be interviewed by Jonathan Miles for BBC Radio Newcastle. I had previously met him when he gave me a free pair of binoculars at the Sunderland Air Show earlier this year! The appeal of his show is that it puts a different and often humorous spin on current events, including being concerned about not being able to let people know about his half-eaten cheesecake on Facebook!

Numbers has been something that we have been keeping a close eye on since we created the Autism Works Facebook page, with our 'likes' going up by up to fifty per day. We had initially set ourselves a target of 10,000 likes by January 2011, but with the rate of likes being as it is, we have started to think up more memorable and easily-remembered numbers, how about 11,111 users by 1.1.11?

Be sure to keep circulating our Facebook page through the social networks to help us raise our profile as well as gain further credibility, and watch this space for further developments within Autism Works.


Friday 29 October 2010

Opening and shutting down

Dear All,

As you may have seen, we have been blitzing the social networks to publicize Autism Works and we would like to say a big thank you first of all to those who have visited our Facebook page, clicked like and suggested it to friends. As you may recall from my previous blog entry, I talked about procrastination, and how mindfulness practice can help overcome it. This week however, I have found that I still have much work to do in relation to procrastination regarding social networking sites!

Though I have a Facebook account, I have never been a big user and only really used it previously to keep in touch with people, rather than letting the world know whenever I am having a cup of tea! But since this job involves far higher use of social networking sites in a professional way than my previous post where access to the social networks was denied in relation to handling of sensitive information, I have had to adapt to a different use of communication and marketing outside of my comfort zone. It will take me a bit of time to get use to the social networking world in a professional way, not least because one often has to be careful about what they do. One slip of the finger could very easily mean public humiliation for yourself or others when you are least aware.

This aspect of using social networking sites, as well as the disconnectedness that those of us strongly dependent on the social networks would likely experience without them, can also help to understand the awkwardness the autism and Asperger's Syndrome can present to the neurotypical world. It is not often easy for people with Asperger's Syndrome to understand where they are breaking the unwritten rules of social interaction or behaviour, including being able to understand possible consequences that their actions, in both online and physical social environments.

On Monday, the world will hopefully understand how it may actually feel to be a person on the autistic spectrum in terms of disconnectedness that non-access to social networking sites can present. There has been mixed enthusiasm for the Communication Shutdown campaign within the autistic community with some feeling that they can't do without social networks for a day as they are the only communication tools within which they feel comfortable. But I guess the important aspect of Communication Shutdown that we need to remember, especially those of us on the autistic spectrum (including myself) need to remember that the purpose of this campaign is to create an awareness within the neurotypical population of what it could be like to be on the autistic spectrum, thus hopefully gaining an appreciation of our perspectives and needs.

Elsewhere at Autism Works, in addition to the interest we seem to building up from on Facebook (still early days), we also have several high-profile IT companies interested in working with us, as well as beginning to generate interest from media and politicians. Watch out for us in the Sunderland Echo and the Shields Gazette and on BBC Radio Newcastle when Communication Shutdown goes ahead on Monday, and keep watching this space for further developments and adventures in Autism Works.


PS We would also like to thank Garry Burge in Brisbane, Queensland, for helping us with our Facebook campaign as well as getting us recognised internationally

Friday 22 October 2010

Dear Readers,

It is difficult for me to believe that I have now been in this post for more than a month, but most remarkably though for me I feel, for now at least, quite firmly settled into my role here at Autism Works and I am at the point where I feel that I can stop worrying too much and enjoy it. This week, I have been continuing working on gathering support as well as preparing for Communication Shutdown, which has involved contacting the local media. I have felt very little anxiety about undertaking such tasks, whereas perhaps at one time, I would procrastinate a little over making and receiving phone calls in relation to anxiety. Now though, I am realising where I am able to apply the qualities I am experiencing during mindfulness practice within life outside practice.

Though there have been some new processes and ways of working for me to get used to and no doubt will be some more, I find that without worrying to much, I am able to focus on tasks much better without excessive procrastination that would normally lead to high-level anxiety.Worrying is something that many people with Asperger's Syndrome, including myself sometimes, are often very good at doing. This is perhaps because it can, like other negative mind states, become an obsession. Controlling and managing obsessions, both healthy and unhealthy ones, can often be difficult for people with Asperger's Syndrome. But from my meditation practice and the eight-week mindfulness stress reduction course that I am currently undertaking, I am finding it much easier to 'switch off' from responsibilities away from work.

As a person with Asperger's Syndrome, switching off in this way isn't the same as simply switching off a light or a television. I often find that I need to make a conscious effort to switch off effectively so that my mind doesn't become occupied with worry and anxiety, but something that I have learned from my mindfulness course, of which I am now into my third week, is during practice when thoughts arise, particularly negative thoughts, it helps not to put labels on them, but rather to acknowledge thoughts and let them pass. This allows one to be and feel more 'in the moment' rather than be stuck in the distant past or be over-anxious about the long-term future. For often, if we worry, we can forget about the immediate present we are living in.

Like many adults with Asperger's Syndrome seem to have, I have had a very 'chequered' working life in terms of how long I have lasted in previous employment as well as at times feeling stuck in particular employment. But what has so often been a major factor regarding high-level anxiety for me was uncertainty when starting a new job in terms of whether or not I would be able to get used to new responsibilities, learn new tasks and skills as well as how I would fit in with the social aspect of a new workplace. Having such thoughts playing on my mind in these and other similar situations so often made it difficult for me to settle in, and little was I often able to notice the effects that this had on colleagues.

It can initially take some time to master being able to live more in the moment than dwell on thoughts during mindfulness practice, but bringing this technique into everyday life situations takes a little more effort, which has helped in terms of being able to settle in at Autism Works. The only very distant anxiety that I had when I took up this post was what would happen to me if the venture was unsuccessful, but the support that the project has gathered thus far, which you will find out more about in the coming weeks, combined with the continued support of Peter and Lesley, I am confident that this anxiety is now largely minimal, which allows for stronger focus on the present moment in the development of Autism Works, allowing me to be with and learn from each stage of the process.

The mindfulness practice, both the eight week course and the meditation class at the University of Sunderland I have attended for the last five years I hope will continue to reinforce my personal development and progression, as well as enable me to give the best of me to others, particularly when providing training of Asperger's Syndrome or working with people on the autistic spectrum helping them reach their potential. Sadly, there are some many good  qualities the people on the autistic spectrum potentially have that can be lost due to anxiety, but by living in the moment rather than dwelling on the past or worrying about the future and just by being with ourselves at each stage of life, we will find more freedom within, allowing us to be happy, whatever the present situation.

In the meantime though be prepared for (without worrying!) a blitz across the social networks in relation to Communication Shutdown and continue to watch this space as well as the Autism Works news feed on our website to find out how Autism Works progresses within each moment.

Friday 15 October 2010

Welcome Back

Dear Readers,

Welcome back to Adventures with Autism Works. Since my last post, we have been busy getting our website online as well as trying to gather support and develop relationships with potential clients. Peter is making progress with the IT sector, while in the meantime we are delighted to have the support of Mark Lever, Chief Executive  of the National Autistic Society, the Rt Hon Cheryl Gillan MP, from whom the UK Autism Bill that was passed last year originated and Professor Tony Attwood, a clinical psychologist and author of The Complete Guide to Asperger's Syndrome, who believes that Autism Works can be replicated not just throughout the UK but around the world.

Much else has developed this week in terms of looking at ways to gather publicity for Autism Works, including promoting the Communication Shutdown campaign to help raise funds and further awareness of autism in over 40 countries. Participating in Communication Shutdown involves shutting down all social networking sites including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn etc. for one whole day on November 1, the purpose being to show how it may feel to be a person on the autistic spectrum in relation to social communication difficulties often experience by people on the autistic spectrum.

Forgetting to bring his phone to work today, Peter suddenly noticed that he was 'unconnected', almost like losing a arm or a leg! I guess this shows just how used to electronic communication we have become and that without it, in short, we are useless. But stepping out of such comfort zones can often be so helpful in terms of understanding what it may be like to be a person on the autistic spectrum, a worldwide effect that the Communication Shutdown campaign hopes to have.

To understand of how it may feel to be a person on the autistic spectrum, when I was delivering training on Asperger's Syndrome to foster carers earlier this week, I gave participants a drama exercise, where working in pairs, one person imagined that they were from Mars and couldn't speak, write or understand any English, while the other was the first human being they had seen after crash landing. I then gave the person from Mars an object that they had just picked up after landing (a boomerang) and being a curious visitor, they were asked the first human they saw what the object was without being able to use language, spoken or written. While the people from Mars became very confused, the people from Earth felt frustrated through not knowing what to do to get through to their visitors from Mars. This is how it can feel to be a person on the autistic spectrum.

In the twelve years since my diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome, I have begun to realise more recently just how much the condition affects not just those diagnosed with the condition but also affects others around them. People on the autistic spectrum can feel isolated through difficulties in being able to grasp the unwritten rules of social interaction while neurotypicals can experience frustration in 'getting through' to people on the autistic spectrum, especially if the person on the autistic spectrum takes figures of speech literally and uses a loaf of bread as a brush to clean the worktop when told to 'use their loaf'! 

Martijn Dekker, who started one of the first E-mailing lists for adults on the autistic spectrum described the internet as being for autistics what sign language is for the deaf. When researching my Masters Dissertation back in 2001 on Autism and Online Communication, I found that many adults on the autistic spectrum find Email a much more comfortable form of communication because they didn't have to balance body-language such as eye-contact and facial expressions with verbal language. In this way, online communication has been a strong tool for the autism population to 'discover itself' as well as express both their abilities and needs through groups like Artists and Autism on Facebook. 

Social networking sites are increasingly playing such a big part in many peoples lives, aspie and neurotypical, with over four billion worldwide now subscribed to social networking sites, it is almost at the stage where it is difficult to imagine how unconnected our lives would be without them. Such unconnected feelings through no access to social networking sites for a day, the Communication Shutdown campaign hopes, will give the world an idea of how it may feel to be a person on the autistic spectrum, thus encouraging empathy in relation to autism as well as raising much needed funds for services for people with autism as well as raising international awareness.

To find out more about the Communication Shutdown campaign, including how you can participate, please use the following link:

Before we start imagining a world without Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, MySpace etc. be sure to continue check this space for more news regarding Autism Works.

Wednesday 6 October 2010

Welcome to Autism Works

Dear Readers and Fellow Aspies,

Welcome to New Aspie Horizons. This first blog entry represents for Autism Works, the company whose development it updates, and the author, Chris Mitchell, Operations Manager, a new journey.  At the time of writing, I have completed my first month in my role after previously working for Durham County Council, where I was for seven years. Change isn't often one of the easiest aspects of life for me as a person with Asperger's Syndrome to handle, not to mention what it has taken me in my first month in terms of getting used to different working practices, but I remain positive that in the long-term, it will be for the better, both for myself and for other people out there with Asperger's Syndrome who have experienced frustrations similar to my own in terms of obtaining and maintaining sustainable employment.

I was appointed to this new and potentially exciting post in July after almost a decade of giving talks, seminars and workshops on Asperger's Syndrome throughout the UK and internationally as well as publishing two books on the subject. In my new role, I hope to continue to raise awareness and understanding of Asperger's Syndrome among potential employers as well as contributing to enhancing the quality of life for adults on the autistic spectrum. 

Despite the frustrations that lack of understanding can bring for a person with Asperger's Syndrome, I realise that such transformations in terms of understanding don't happen overnight. Presently, at Autism Works, what we have to be careful about, especially in our early stages of development is that we don't create high expectations too early. We have already had enquires about potential employment opportunities locally and from as far away as Oxford and Brisbane, Australia! Though we hope to appoint our first software testers in mid-2011 after we have hopefully got high-profile client contractors on board. Fingers crossed!

To help me adjust to new working practices and responsibilities at Autism Works, I have been fortunate to have had some really good support from Peter Macdonald, Managing Director at Autism Works, and Lesley Lane, Chief Executive at Education and Services for People with Autism (ESPA), as well as other ESPA staff. I also have much admiration for Peter's approach towards and interest in the Asperger community and what we can potentially offer wider society. Too often, when we think of Autism and Asperger's Syndrome, we think of impairments, and often overlook potential strengths that the condition can present, including eye for detail, a very useful strength for software testing, the field Autism Works is looking to recruit into. Working with ESPA students, Peter took an interest in their strengths and abilities and realised that they are often overlooked because conventional recruitment practices are social skills orientated rather than skills focused.

Through working with ESPA students, Peter has developed a really good understanding of the Asperger community in a relatively short space of time, especially in relation to strengths and who people on the autistic spectrum are as individuals. It took me some years after my Asperger diagnosis back in 1998 as well as various life experiences, meditation and developing friendships with other people with Asperger's Syndrome throughout the world to attain such a level of understanding. But this is just the sort of understanding that the Asperger community needs if our needs are to be considered within society as a whole, rather than in isolation.

Be sure to revisit this space to see how Autism Works progresses, as well as how we cope with the challenges that lie ahead.

Chris Mitchell