Yenn’s thoughts about Christmas – surviving the holidays! 

I have a bit of a reputation of being anti-Christmas, mostly based on a blog post I wrote a few years ago. I am actually not at all anti-Christmas but I have a healthy respect for the challenge that the holiday season can give and especially give to neurodivergent folks – and gender divergent folks too for that matter.

I actually quite enjoy Christmas. In recent years I haven’t had the family variety but have done other things. One year I did nothing at all. I just stayed home and cooked a nice meal for myself and had a glass of wine. It was liberating! Last year I went to a trans and gender divergent ‘Festivus’ event at A Gender Agenda which was awesome. So many trans and gender divergent people have issues with estranged families and bigoted relatives making Christmas very difficult indeed. I am fortunate to have a family who are not at all bigoted around my gender – or anyone else’s gender for that matter! This year I am looking forward to spending a low key Christmas with my parents. This will be my first family Christmas for many years and because of this I am particularly looking forward to it. 

However, for many people Christmas is not a pleasant event. A lot of my difficulty around Christmas is the expectations. It seems that everywhere we look in media, adverting and popular culture people are being enthusiastically engaged in gift giving, eating festive fare and connecting happily with apparently perfect families full of love. Looking at these images there is only happiness and enjoyment portrayed. It is hard to imagine these shiny people having a tough time. Then when we reflect on our own lives and everything is far from shiny and perfect this leaves a lot of people thinking they must be doing something wrong. One thing is for certain – we don’t see a lot of autism or neurodivergence in these idealised portrayals of Christmas. These expectations and messaging can be highly challenging, especially for children who might feel they are somehow ‘wrong’. I really don’t want any neurodivergent children – or adults – to feel ‘wrong’, especially at a time where we are supposed to be celebrating.

One thing that I have heard a lot about over the years is parents of autistic kids lamenting that their child is strongly averse to getting a photo with Santa at the shopping mall. I find this a bit frustrating. If the child can’t do the Santa picture then they can’t do it. Plain and simple. It is not a necessary part of life and if it upsets the child that much then why would anyone want to force their child to do something upsetting which is not actually necessary. How about being imaginative and doing something similar which the child can actually do? Maybe getting a parent to dress up as Santa and get a photo or ask the child if they want to dress up themselves for a photo? It can still be festive but it probably won’t cause the child stress and pain.

Santa Claus can be a cause of stress at Christmas for other reasons too. Many parents give their children the story about Santa but this can come with some difficulties for autistic kids. When I was a child we did not ‘do’ Santa so I told my school colleagues that it wasn’t true, leading to a fair amount of unpleasantness! Many autistic kids struggle when they discover Santa isn’t real. They feel their parents were being intentionally dishonest. The whole Santa thing can be quite fraught.

Gifts can be a challenge. Firstly many neurodivergent people are unemployed or underemployed. Gift giving can be extremely expensive and people may be unable to afford a lot of gifts. There are so many expectations around gifts. There are also considerations and unwritten rules about gifts, Some gifts – like candles or soap – are gendered as ‘female’ gifts and some are gendered as ‘male.’ To my mind this is silly and counterproductive and quiet offensive but many people subscribe to these gendered expectations. Autistic people often don’t ‘get’ unwritten rules like this. People can be very cutting and cruel to those who pick an apparently inappropriate gift. It is a complete minefield! I tend to think we shouldn’t have occasions where gifts are expected like Christmas and birthdays. Instead maybe if we see something a friend or family member might like we should just get if for them whatever the day is. There is so much waste going into landfill from unwanted gists and packaging.

Christmas is often a time of excessive food and alcohol. Autistic people often have routines and structure around food. Christmas food might not fit the routine and it might be difficult to adjust to this change. Christmas can also be overwhelming in terms of sensory input. It can be loud and chaotic with lots of people – including people you don’t usually see. Autistic people – especially kids but adults too – might be criticised by family members who don’t often see them and may not have a good understanding of autism – or who might just be garden variety bigots. There is a fine line between enjoyment and overload at Christmas  for many autistic people.

I don’t really know how I feel about Christmas. As a child all the sparkly lights and food treats were awesome but as an adult it just seems to compound existing issues and I often think it might be better to not bother with the holiday at all.

I don’t want to be a killjoy or the grinch that stole Christmas but I think we need to be cogniscant of some of the issues with the season and the fact that for many neurodivergent people the holidays can be very stressful – well probably for anyone I guess. 

Whatever you celebrate ad however you celebrate it I hope the holiday season is good for you this year. 

‘Brutally honest’ – Autistic communication and telling it like it is

 My mum is my favourite human being in the world. She always stood by me even when I did very dodgy things and was aggressive and self-destructive Growing up my mum was my closest friend and confidante. My mum is also autistic. We are now – and for most of my life have been – our own club of two in a very big and often hostile world. When I was a young teen my mum told me she had once been described as ‘brutally honest.’ I didn’t know what she meant by this. It seemed odd. Presumably honesty was a positive quality? As an adult and autism advocate I came to realise that my mum was talking about the autistic quality – which she definitely possesses – of ‘telling it like it is.’ 

I grew up in a home where you said what you meant and you meant what you said. It was awesome! I later discovered that not everyone likes or is prepared to hear this kind of strong honesty. Most people seem to like to be let down gently rather than told things as they are. It interests me. If I am upsetting a person I would much rather they tell me  what I did than what usually happens which is that they distance themselves and I never see them again. I am left puzzled by this and deeply hurt.

I like autistic honesty. It is sensible and I think it is more respectful to be honest. I know how to mask and do small talk but my preference is not to. The honesty thing can be seen as a fundamental difference between autistic people and neurotypical people. It seems that it doesn’t occur to the neurotypical folks to say things honestly the way autistics do. Working on several levels at once and telling people what they want to hear is very different to what autistics do. We  tend to operate on one level at a time and what we say is what we mean.

I have met many neurotypical people who are partners to an autistic person saying how refreshing our honesty is. What interests me is that they think it is a choice! In fact honesty for autistic people is more like a default setting. We are not deliberately being honest we are just being ourselves. Honesty doesn’t just extend to verbal or written conversations either. It also relates to body language and eye contact. As an autistic person I have no way of knowing what my eyes or body are conveying. I am not aware of body language and eye contact in myself or in others. I definitely cannot intentionally adjust my body language or eye contact to convey something I don’t actually mean or believe. A few years ago I was working in a lovely team in Human Resources, My senior manager said something which was a bit sensitive about a colleague. He looked at me and said ‘That’s the right eye contact Yenn!’ It was like he thought I was intentionally doing the appropriate thing with my eyes. In reality my eyes were being honest – they only know how to be honest! Luckily my intent was positive!

There are a lot of misinterpretations in this space. Autistic people are so often called rude or disrespectful because our honesty makes people think we are intentionally being unpleasant. It is one of those cultural type differences between autistic people and neurotypicals. We are (metaphorically) speaking a different language which is rarely recognised or understood by the neurotypical folks in our lives. So instead of thinking we are different and our intentions and approach are different they assume we have the same meaning with our words and actions that they would if they said or did those things. Thinking that our behaviour comes from the same place as it would if it was them doing it results in a lot of judgement and ableism. It is one of those areas where education and knowledge about autism is essential.

So yes, I think autistic honesty is not a bad thing but it is a thing that needs understanding if we don’t want people assuming we are rude or, in my mum’s case, ‘brutally honest.’ Yet another area where different is not less. 

Awesome Aces – on being part of the Asexual community 

Content warning: brief reference to sexual trauma

Some years ago I discovered something about myself which made a lot of sense. This was the fact that I am asexual. I spent many years thinking I must be lesbian. The reason for this is that I had a sexual encounter with a man when I was 16 which was so unpleasant that it caused trauma. Men, to my mind, were icky and women seemed less icky. By this logic I decided that I must be gay. I had a few sexual experiences with women and also found them highly unpleasant but I didn’t know there were any other options. The three sexualities I knew were gay, straight and bi and I needed to fit into one of those. The gay ‘box’ was the one which most closely aligned with my feelings. Sexual activity with women was unpleasant but nowhere near as unpleasant as sexual activity with men, ergo I must be gay.

I kept the view that I was gay for many years, even though it still didn’t quite work. A few years ago I came across the asexual option for sexuality and it made sense. I have almost no libido and do not view people in sexual terms. My idea of attraction is aesthetic attraction. I like people based on looking at  their face and clothes. I don’t understand the concept of being physically sexually attracted to anyone. I am afraid of sex and avoid sexual contact at all costs. I also have some sensory issues around sexual contact. Saliva utterly grosses me out so I cannot imaging finding any joy in kissing.

I now identify as part of the Asexual – or ‘Ace’ community and I feel very comfortable with this. I learn more about the Ace community  as time goes on. I know know I am probably ‘grey sexual’ or ‘Demi sexual’ as I have a small amount of sexual interest. I also know that the ‘A’ in the acronym ‘LGBTQIA+ stands for asexual (not ally as some people think). Aces are one of the least visible of the groups that make up the LGBTQIA+ community. One of the issues is that people assume that Aces are against sex for everyone and that we are prudish. In my experience this is not the case. I for one am very sex positive and not judgemental of others for enjoying consensual sexual activity. It’s just that I don’t want to do any of it myself! 

One issue for Aces is that we are often confused with people who have experienced trauma and that this has somehow impacted on our sex drive. Of course many Aces have experienced trauma – trauma is sadly a common experience – but asexuality is a valid sexuality option, and a person does not need to have experienced trauma in order to be asexual. Likewise asexuality is not – or should not be – a pathology. Just as being gay or lesbian – or transgender for that matter – is not an affliction, being asexual is also not an affliction. It is just a different – and equally valid – kind of sexuality.

Aces often have other LGBTQIA+ identities including various kinds of gender diversity and polyamory.  They are also often neurodivergent – like many other LGBTQIA+ folks. One thing which I have come up against in the past is people assuming that ALL autistic people are asexual. That idea is also found in other disability communities. It is in fact wrong. While many autistic people are Ace not autistic people are. I think that view comes from the flawed idea that being Asexual is like being a child and that autistic – or other Disabled-  people are eternal children. This is highly insulting to bother autistic and other Disabled  people and to Asexual people as well. I work in a corporate environment and most of my colleagues have partners and children. I do not and this sometimes makes me fell like I inhabit a different world to my colleagues and that I am somehow less ‘adult’ than them. This is not true but it is a pervasive attitude. (Although none of my colleagues has ever acted in a way that promotes this view-  it is my own perception based on attitudes more broadly.)

Asexual people actually do sometimes have partners and children. Just like gay people may have had some heterosexual encounters and some straight people may have had some homosexual encounters, so too do asexual people sometimes have sexual encounters. We are in relationships too – monogamous or polyamorous. Not all romantic relationships are sexual relationships. The stereotypes about how an asexual person – or anyone – engages in relationships is unhelpful as all relationships are different.

I am very proud to be an asexual and non-binary person. I love my Queer identities and my autistic and ADHD and other identities too. I am proud to be myself and I wish that sense of pride to my peers. And I don’t need a relationship, sex or kids to be an adult! 

This is the Asexual Pride flag

The time everything changed – pivotal moments in my life

Content warning: Drug use and mental health issues

This is a Yennski self-reflective sort of post. I am hoping my story will have some helpful information for others. If not, it’s a nice story about overcoming adversity and making positive choices I guess.

I have an autobiography. It is the first book I wrote and it was the catalyst for some dramatic change in my life. I want to share with you that time in my life when everything changed and how I used that experience to make a life for myself which was so dramatically different to what came before that it hardly makes sense. 

Anyone who has read that autobiography would know that I am an ex-prisoner, that I used to have a major drug addiction issue and that I was very poor for a long time. I was in denial about my autism and my schizophrenia and I didn’t like myself very much. I was unable to work at all for many years. There were some positives at play though. I decided in mid-2000 that I wanted a life which looked like what most people I knew in my family had – a professional job, a mortgage and an education. I applied for university and was successful. 

I had a few years where things could have gone one way or another. It was like I was caught between heaven and hell. At the time when I wrote my autobiography things were perched somewhere between fulfilment and destruction. I had a big alcohol problem due to living among alcoholics – I found it impossible to be socially accepted by alcoholics without having alcohol issues myself and I was desperate to be socially accepted by my neighbours. 

Employment was a tricky situation. I was desperate to get a professional job and had undertaken a lot of study so I could land a graduate role somewhere but I wasn’t working much and found any kind of work very stressful. In 2004 I got a phone call from an autism organisation and employment service I was seeing. They wanted me to do a course so that I could talk about autism at schools. I said yes and had no idea what a fundamental change the course would make in my life. Basically I found my autistic peer group and felt a huge sense of belonging. Even better than that I met Polly Samuel. Polly was a very charismatic person. She stood out amongst the group and I wanted to get to know her better. I asked Polly about herself and she told me she had written nine books on autism and was  a world-renowned autistic advocate. We became friends and soon she had suggested I write my own life story. It took me four weeks to draft the book. Polly helped me to edit it and wrote a foreword and sent it to her publisher. They said yes and my world changed forever.

The book was not a bestseller. It still isn’t a bestseller but it had a huge impact on my life. When it was accepted for publication I was living in social housing and had a neighbour who was stalking me. I was still caught between two worlds – and I knew which one I wanted to inhabit. I longed to be a professional employee and have more accomplishments like that beautiful blue and pink book. I think I told everyone I knew that I was about to be an author. I had never had an accomplishment like it. It gave me more confidence that I knew was possible. The idea of Yenn the author was an idea that I could get very used to. 

Three months after the book was published I applied for two graduate roles in the public service. I knew that as an ex-prisoner it would be difficult to get a job like that but I figured if I didn’t apply I would never know the outcome and that if I applied and was unsuccessful, well I would just be in the same situation I already was so why not go for it.

It turned out that I was successful for one of the graduate jobs. I told my new employer about my criminal history as well as my autism and schizophrenia. The department did an investigation and decided I did not pose a threat to anyone. So in 2007 I moved to Canberra to start my new life as a public service graduate officer. I loved my work from the day I started. It is now almost fifteen years past that day and I can say that I still love my job. I have done a huge range of different roles and have been promoted twice. 

2007 was an interesting year and a pivotal one. I discovered that I am diligent and respectful at work and have a massive work ethics and that my level of motivation is immense. One of my managers recently told me I do the work of two people. 

I ended up buying a property, writing a bunch more books and becoming a passionate autism advocate – not necessarily in that order! When I look at the early 2000s I realise that my life could have gone one of a number of ways. There were so many ‘sliding doors’ moments but most fo the time I took the more positive option. The thing which helped me was my good judgement, motivation and willpower. I have given up a number of addictions over the years. I lost 40kg in weight in three years and I threw out my address book when I left prison knowing that all the ‘friends’ in there were in a negative place and I didn’t want to get involved with them again. I am also a huge optimist and try to see the positives in situations – and people. I could have gone in any of a number of directions in my twenties and early thirties but I didn’t. I connected with positive people and mentors and fought hard to make a better world for myself. And now I hope I am making a better world for others through my writing and advocacy. Go well beautiful people and may the choices you make be beneficial and positive. 

My autobiography – not a bestseller but a game changer if you are me!

Autistic culture and communication – Learning to speak Autistic

I came up with an idea a while back – that of ‘autistic culture.’ I am sure I wasn’t the first person to talk about this but it was an epiphany when I came to the realisation that such a thing exists.

To illustrate this, let me get in my metaphorical TARDIS and go back in time to 2005… I had just had my first book accepted for publication and was finding my way around the autistic community – or the part of the autistic community which lived in Melbourne and congregated around author and advocate Polly Samuel. I hadn’t been in touch with many autistic people prior to meeting Polly and suddenly I found myself surrounded by fellow autistics. I noticed a few things about my new peer group. The first was that we were all very much individuals. The second was that there were two main approaches people took to understanding our communication differences from others. The first group said something along the lines of ‘People don’t like me or understand me. What am I doing wrong?’ And the second group said ‘People don’t like or understand me. They must be idiots!’ I was definitely in the first group but it got me thinking about communication and understanding across neurotypes.

It also got me thinking about how we interpret the wold and our place in it as neurodivergent folks. I figured that we can view being autistic as like being residents in a strange country where the locals don’t speak our language. We learn some words in the local language but it never comes naturally and we long for our  fellow expats. The cultural model goes further than this. If we imagine autistic people as being French speakers and neurotypical folks as being German speakers this gives us a lens through which to understand communication across neurotypes. It is not that the neurotypical ‘German speakers’ understand that we usually speak French and that because of this our ‘German’ isn’t so fluent. It is more that the neurotypical German speakers don’t even understand that there is a French language. Neurotypical people frequently have no understanding of neurodiversity and simply assume autistic folks are inept at communicating.

It is actually not the case that autistics communicate poorly. We don’t. We communicate very well but just differently. Prior to COVID I often attended big autism conferences. There was a quiet room at these events. If you went into the quiet room during the lunch break you would see a group of people having a fantastic conversation. The people would all understand each other and know where each other was coming from. The people in this group were all autistic. Social skills and communication were going on very well and if a neurotypical person entered then they would be at a disadvantage in terms of their communication. Autistics don’t communicate badly, we simply communicate differently. Put a bunch of us together and you will see that communication at work. Our ‘French’ is perfectly fine and we ca understand each other. Just because autistics don’t communicate like neurotypicals does not mean we cannot communicate.

The cultural model of autism allows for greater respect and inclusion. It is also more accurate than saying we communicate badly, lack empathy or have poor social skills. There is a lot of time, money and effort spent trying to make autistic people seem more neurotypical. Not only is this unhelpful it can actually be traumatising for autistic people and it doesn’t really archive anything. Autistic people are not communicating badly we are just communicating differently. This model is one of inclusion which enables us to understand the value of autistic people. Int also makes it easier to communicate with us and understand we are different, not less. 

Autistic people re constantly being encouraged – and sometimes coerced – to seem less autistic and more neurotypical. In the not so distant past left-handed kids were forced to write with their right hand. We now understand that this is unhelpful and damaging for those kids. Could we maybe do the same with autistic communication? Autistic are speaking another language – a language which is valid and beautiful and perfectly OK. So maybe rater than forcing autistic people to ‘speak neurotypical’ maybe people could learn to speak Autistic? That would be so good.  

The trouble with eye contact

Content warning: Abusive ‘therapies’

When I was 17 I got a job at a fast food restaurant. Everyone who worked there was young. It was quite a scary  job as the age demographic of employees was similar to that of the people who bullied me in school. I was constantly terrified that the ‘nerd’ persona I had very recently known at school would come out when I was at work and I would be bullied in the workplace. This actually didn’t happen, much to my relief. However an incident occurred which I didn’t understand at the time as I wasn’t yet diagnosed with autism. The incident was that an attractive female coworker complained to another colleague that I had stared at her legs in the change room and that I was a pervert – a gay pervert at that, which was not something this employee viewed very sympathetically. The colleague she complained about me to was actually gay himself and covered for me by saying we were dating to get me off the hook. In fact I was not being a pervert. I didn’t ever consciously look at any part of this woman’s anatomy. What happened was that my eyes were pointing in her direction while I thought about something else! This happens to me a lot. Neurotypical folks have very different thoughts about eye contact and looking to autistic people and this was one of those occurrences. 

I have never found meaning in eyes. I learned that meaning was conveyed through eyes from reading books as a child and teen and it puzzled me. I don’t know what colour my parents’ or bothers’ eyes are after knowing them for over 47 years. On the very rare occasions that I make eye contact with someone (always accidentally) I find the experience invasive and frightening. It is like I can see directly into the other person’s soul and they into mine. Quite horrible. Like many other autistics I have developed strategies for eye contact. I worked out a long time ago that non-autistic people tend to want me to look at them in the eyes. Doing this is very unpleasant but I don’t like to be ostracised so I look in the general direction of the other person’s face – usually the bridge of their nose. However I often completely forget to look at their face and they can get quite put out. 

Autistic kids sometimes get sent to really damaging ‘therapy’ which punishes them for basically demonstrating that they are autistic. These so-called ‘therapies’ work on sanctions and rewards and they are based in the concept that autistic traits and looking ‘different’ are bad and appearing to be ‘normal’ is good. Needless to say this sort of thing causes trauma and is not OK but it still happens a lot. Eye contact tends to be a mainstay of these kinds of ‘therapies’ and they feel they have achieved a successful outcome if a kid makes – or pretends to make – eye contact. This is not ever OK. In fact eye contact isn’t even an essential part of communication. In many cultures around the world eye contact is not expected and is even considered rude. Also if we needed to look others in the eyes in order to communicate then phone calls wouldn’t work!

Another issue with eye contact is around diagnosis. Many diagnosticians think that if a person can make eye contact then they are not autistic. This is problematic for a number of reasons, the first being that some autistic people make genuine eye contact. It is not a problem for all autistic folks. Another issue is that may autistic people are adept at masking in order to fit in, meaning they may be ‘faking’ eye contact as I sometimes do. There are lots of unhelpful stereotypes and assumptions around autism and this is one of them. 

I think the lesson the world needs to learn in this area is that eye contact is not the pinnacle of communication, people can appear to be making eye contact even if they aren’t, many cultures find eye contact as distasteful as many Western autistic people do and that while most autistic people struggle with eye contact, not all of us do. People need educating in this space as there is often an assumption that everyone needs to make eye contact in order to be understood. If someone is looking at the ground while you are speaking with them it doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t paying attention. In fact for many autistic people looking away from the person they are conversing with actually means that they will be communicating better then if they were looking at them! There are many different ways to communicate. 

Clinicians – the issues and how to work well with them

I have a lovely psychiatrist who sadly passed away last year. I have an extensive history of accessing mental health care and have come across my fair share of arrogant medicos. So the first time I saw this psychiatrist I posed a question. This is about as tricky as I get – and probably isn’t very tricky anyway as I tend to operate on only one level…but here is what I did. I said to my new psychiatrist that as I was paying for his services he was my employee. I told him that if he didn’t live up to my expectations I would withdraw my payment and employ another psychiatrist. After saying this I asked him what he thought. The tricky bit fo this was that I was more interested in how he responded to the question than what his answer was. He passed the test and I saw him as a patient for the next five years. 

Clinicians can be a big problem for autistic folks. Often they have a fair whack of arrogance and don’t listen to what we or our allies and carers say. Sometimes they are ignorant about autism and refuse to listen to anyone trying to educate them. Sometimes they take a ‘one size fits all’ approach to autism which is highly unhelpful and doesn’t support anyone really.

One of the biggest issues around clinicians and autism is accurate diagnosis. A huge number of autistic people get a misdiagnosis. Some of them don’t even realise they are autistic so go along with the wrong diagnostic ‘label’ Others know they are autistic so find its dismissal and their misdiagnosis to be highly invalidating and often traumatic. What is the issue with misdiagnosis? Well for one thing a diagnosis determines what treatments and supports a person receives. Wrong diagnosis = wrong treatment and supports. And when we talk about autism and other neurodivergences there can be a big identity consideration too. Being neurodivergent is often a core part of a person’s identity and how they view and understand themselves. So giving someone the wrong diagnosis will most likely mean they get inappropriate and unhelpful treatment and that they struggle with their sense of identity.

I have a Yennski story about misdiagnosis. I was diagnosed with autism in 1994 when I was 20 and then I was diagnosed with schizophrenia a year later. These are my current diagnoses – alongside ADHD and generalised anxiety disorder. Every competent psychiatrist I have met has given me a similar diagnosis – autism and schizophrenia or some other kind of psychosis. Sadly not all psychiatrists are helpful. I found myself in hospital in 1996. I was living with my parents at the time. They told my hospital psychiatrist that I was autistic and have schizophrenia. This doctor would have won the award for patronising and arrogant. He refused to listen to my parents mostly I think because my autism diagnosis had come from a young female clinical physiologist and this doctor was quite misogynist. He diagnosed my with borderline personality disorder. In fact he appeared to have diagnosed all the female-presenting patients in the hospital with borderline personality disorder. He said my self-destructive behaviour was ‘for attention’ and other very unhelpful things of a similar nature.  I used to think of it as the diagnosis male doctors give to women they perceive as histrionic! Thos doctor haunted me. He kept popping up unexpectedly and telling me and the other workers that I wasn’t autistic. It was awful.

The last time I saw this psychiatrist was at a local area mental health clinic where he was the chief doctor. He was adamant that I wasn’t autistic so I went private. I saw a doctor who specialised in autism and adults. He said to me that if the psychologist who diagnosed me had given me an autism diagnosis then I was definitely autistic as she was such a proficient autism clinician and expert. It was very affirming and nice to meet a doctor who I could actually work with.

It is important to foster and promote a collaborative relationship with any clinicians you are seeing. They are your employee or – if they are publicly funded too – you are the person accessing the service so they should be on your side and trying to help. I always liken a clinician who is unhelpful as being like a plumber you have hired to fix a leak and instead they smash your toilet. You really don’t want to have the metaphorical plumber who smashed up your toilet work with you on your mental health.   

A lot of people ask me for recommendations for clinicians. I live in Canberra, Australia and I have collected recommendations for clinicians which I send around fellow Canberra residents – with the caveat that a clinician who is helpful for one person may not be for others. I do not have lists of clinicians in other areas. However a lot of people belong to autism or mental health groups online. It can be a great idea to ask for recommendations (or warnings!) about clinicians people have found helpful (or those they would never recommend). 

I love when I get a good clinician. My current psychiatrist is really lovely – and has affirmed my autism, ADHD and schizophrenia diagnoses. It can be quite hit and miss finding a good one so I am very grateful to have one I can work with. It is a collegiate relationship with the focus on keeping me healthy. I think that is exactly what a therapeutic relationship should be like. 

Yennski giving a presentation to a room full of psychiatrists in 2018

“Lucky” – the difference an attitude can make

I am lucky.

I went through school as an undiagnosed autistic person. I was bullied a lot. I hated myself and wanted to be someone else. I left home at 17 and got involved with dangerous people. I found myself in trouble with the law and ended up in jail. The experience was so traumatic that I self medicated with illicit drugs. The resulted in me becoming homeless. I also had a psychotic episode which morphed into a schizophrenia diagnosis which I still have 26 years later. I was abused and manipulated repeatedly. I spent twelve years in poverty. I lived in public housing where my neighbours were mostly alcoholics. I developed an alcohol problem due to my friendship with my neighbours. I had a neighbour who was a stalker and was fixated on me and was violent and controlling. I have been unwell with psychosis on multiple occasions. It has threatened to take my job – and my life. I have to take medication which impacts on my long-term physical health, If I don’t take the meds I get extremely unwell.

I am lucky,

I am quite intelligent, allowing me to make sense of a difficult world. I have motivation and willpower beyond imagination. I met an amazing mentor in 2004. She supported me to write my life story. My life story was published by the first publisher I sent it to. Despite my criminal history I landed a prestigious public service graduate job. It tuned out that I was a great employee. I got promoted twice in the space of thee years. After years of trying different ones I now have medication which helps me to manage my mental illness. I have worked on my relationship with family members and now have a great relationship with my parents. I like and value myself. I am proud of who I am. I have used my willpower to give up smoking, illicit drugs, problem drinking and other self-destructive behaviour. I like who I am. I don’t mask or camouflage my autistic traits. I have a big following online and get to write books, blogs and give talks most weeks, which I love.

Yes, I am lucky. I am not lucky due to fate or chance or destiny. I am lucky because I think I am lucky. Many people with my story would focus on the first list above but I (usually) choose to focus on the second one. Luck is something we make for ourselves not something that just happens. The way we view our life, the decisions we take and our attitudes to life are what determines whether we are lucky or not. 

I consider myself lucky mostly because I have a very positive approach to life. I am an optimist. I know this may seem irritating to some people but in my life at least it has meant the difference between giving up and keeping going.

These things are quite subjective. I am not always positive or optimistic. Sometimes life gets the better of me and I get very stressed and overwhelmed but thankfully my baseline is a positive one. If I lose hope it usually returns and makes things easier to manage. Some people think I must have had no hardships to have my outlook but that is far from the case. I have true horrors in my life – past and present. The thing for me is to reflect on my value and the work I do. I know that my mental illness can destroy my life in a short space of time but I also know I have lived independently for many years and that I have worked in government administration for almost 15 years. In this time I have had many episodes of severe illness but I am still employed. Autistic people often struggle with positivity and focus on or relive difficult situations. This is probably because we can face a range of challenges and are  often the victim to predatory people. It is certainly not a reason to judge a person but life is much easier I find if you approach it form the perspective of optimism where possible.  

I also know that my attitude impacts on my life and on how I interact with people. Staff in mental health clinical settings often tell me how easy it is to work with me, as do my managers at work. I know it can be hard to have a positive attitude and that feeling lucky is not always possible but I also know that it makes it a lot easier for me to navigate life. I have not always felt lucky, for from it. I spent years believing I was cursed. My ‘luck’ is something I have made for myself. It is possible to change a set of attitudes but it can take some time and effort.

Luck is a very subjective thing. For me feeling lucky helps scaffold positive and optimistic attitudes but it isn’t necessarily easy. So yes, I am lucky but it is mostly an attitude and it is not a constant or consistent thing. An attitude of optimism needs to be maintained and cultivated like a garden. Hopefully the ‘garden’ is full of beautiful flowers and visited by kitties.  

Stop! Impostor!! Impostor syndrome, confidence and intersectionality

I will preface this with saying that the introduction to this post is not intended to brag but to illustrate a problem I have – that of impostor syndrome.

I am the author of nine published books… An autobiography, a book on employment for autistic young people, one on mental health, two on resilience, one for autistic kids on self-empowerment, one is for autistic women on navigating life well, one is a book of my poems and one is for trans and gender divergent autistic adults. I have chapters or poems in a further ten publications and have two books in production and one under contract. These books are but one example of the impressive things I do but how do you imagine I view this? Basically I mostly dismiss and devalue every achievement I have and feel like I am a big fraud with nothing to offer the world. 

The interesting thing about this is that I am far from alone. Many people also experience impostor syndrome. And another interesting thing is that mostly – in my experience – the people experiencing impostor syndrome are people who belong to at least one intersectional group. I have a few ‘diversity’ boxes that I tick – I am autistic and ADHD, I have schizophrenia and am non-binary and asexual. I spent many years in my early adulthood in poverty and some years in prison. Even though my socio-economic status now is at the higher end of the scale, fifteen years of poverty have taken their toll on my feelings about myself and my place in the world. Likewise I have not been in trouble with the law since 1999 but that time in the criminal justice system took it’s toll on my confidence and sense of identity. 

When it comes to impostor syndrome, intersectionality is often – although not always – a big factor.  For me I experience impostor syndrome on a few fronts. It makes me question my worth and my contribution to the world. I worry that my books are meaningless and actually I have no expertise on anything I have written about and I am a complete fraud. I doubt my credentials and worry that I am just an opinionated person who has nothing useful to say about anything and people who buy my books are wasting their money. This is not just a fleeting thought or doubt, It is a deeply help belief. Even writing about it now adds fuel to the fire of impostor syndrome and I worry I am putting things into the world which are negative and unhelpful.

The other element of my own impostor syndrome is all about my identity, I worry that I am ‘not transgender enough’ or that people will question my autism, ADHD and schizophrenia diagnoses. Whenever someone misgenders me or makes a comment about my sense of style being feminine I get anxious and worry that I am a fraud as a non-binary ands transcoder person. When I first came out as non-binary this was a big problem and I worried about it all the time. Thankfully I came to the realisation that anyone who identifies as transgender is in fact transgender. It is an identity and you own it yourself. And looking at my past it is absolutely obvious that I am – and have always been – transgender and non-binary! Logic tells me that there is no doubt in that fact – although of course anxiety and logic don’t go hand in hand and impostor syndrome is related to anxiety.

Like other kinds of anxiety, impostor syndrome doesn’t listen to logic. I am one of the most accomplished people I know but that makes zero difference in how I view myself. Impostor syndrome can be fed by negative messaging and assumptions of incompetence from other people in relation to a person being Disabled. Disabled people are often treated like any minor thing we do is an ‘inspiration’ – something which feeds directly into impostor syndrome and a lack of confidence. We also often get messaging that we are incapable of doing anything very much – something which can result in a lack of confidence and in impostor syndrome.

I think that building self-confidence can be challenging but it is a good way of helping to address impostor syndrome. There is a thing which is like impostor syndrome but is sort of its opposite. That is where a person is wrongly overconfident. Similarly to impostor syndrome this thing relates to intersectionality but rather than resulting form someone feeling devalued as a member of intersectional groups, it tends to happen to people from positions of privilege. An example is a colleague I had many years ago. He was a white cis gender heterosexual middle class man. He applied for a promotion to two levels about his substantive work classification. I remember this because I applied for a promotion (for one level of advancement) at the same time and was convinced I wouldn’t get it. My level of confidence as an employee was quite low and I only applied for the promotion because my manager recommended it. This fellow applied for a position which was way beyond his capability because he genuinely believed he could do it. He ended up leaving the workplace about three months after he got the promotion because he was not capable of doing the role and kept making mistakes. 

Of course people from privileged groups can get impostor syndrome and it is more complex than ‘diversity good, privileged bad’ but I do think there is a strong connection between intersectionality, identity and confidence and impostor syndrome (and overconfidence too!). It would be nice if the people who lacked confidence could be encouraged to have a more realistic view of their capability – both for them but also so that they would be more likely to share their skills and talents and thoughts with the world.  

My problems with ‘female autism’

A few years ago a new notion arrived in the autism world – that of ‘female autism.’ This is the idea that autistic women and girls present differently to men and boys. On the surface there is some validity to this but I have a number of reservations about this model.

The first and most obvious – to my mind any least – is that there are more than two genders. Binary male and binary female are but two of a myriad gender identities  so to say autism is either ‘male’ or ‘female’ invalidates the experience of gender divergent folks. Is there, for example a non-binary autism type or a trans masculine autism type? Are there lists of characteristics for these groups? Autism is different for each autistic person whatever their gender identity may be and gender goes way beyond the binary of cis male and cis female. 

To talk about ‘female autism’ is to deny all the other genders. It also doesn’t really work, even with autistic people who are cis gender. Many cis autistic women have the apparently ‘male’ characteristics an many cis autistic men have the apparently ‘female’ characteristics, In fact many cis autistic people have a combination of the ‘male and ‘female’ traits making the whole thing quite problematic. The gendered autism model doesn’t quite work.

There is a history of gendered approaches to understanding autism and many of them are highly problematic. When I started my advocacy career in the mid-2000s there was a pervasive view that autism was the result of an ‘extreme male brain.’ As such autistic people were seen as being very masculine in their approach to life and their expression. There are so many issues with this it may make my laptop explode as I type!! Well, maybe not but it is very problematic. If we are all ‘extreme male’ then why are there autistic trans women? Why are there autistic non-binary people? Also what are ‘male’ characteristics anyway? This theory suggests a very poor understanding of gender and of autism but it was pervasive for many years.

There are many lists of gendered autistic characteristics, some compiled by prominent autistic women. I have an issue with these lists because they suggest a poor understanding of the complexities of gender and the nuances and often individual nature of autism. To say ‘this is a female trait’ and ‘this is a male trait’ doesn’t really work in my mind. That being said autistic women and girls can still struggle to get a diagnosis. This does suggest a difference for autistic cis women but we need to be really careful about assigning characteristics broadly to any particular gender. Autistic cis men and boys and gender divergent folks can also struggle to receive an appropriate diagnosis. I think clinicians need to improve their understanding of autism for ALL genders. There are some elements of life and expression that many autistic women and girls might share but that is a very different notion to saying ‘autistic women do this that and the other.’ Autistic people need to be taken as individuals whatever their gender.

We need to get better at understanding autism as well as gender.   Gender – and autism – are not as simple as assigning a list of attributes to an entire demographic. I prefer to view us as individuals with individual identities, expression and needs.