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