Back in the water

I had a reminder that it’s been nearly three years since I last wrote anything here! I know the site still works, as I still get enquiries from time to time from people looking for a hand-hold. I’m always glad to give it, or to support a project.

Paper Lifeboat was doing its job quite well by simply sitting in the station and giving advice to any visitors that passed by. The world of autism acceptance has moved on a lot since last I wrote – and so have I. So, what’s been going on?

New openings through lockdown

Through COVID I’ve worked my socks off for a number of organisations working in mental health, disability, accessibility, and public engagement. I’ve learned a lot about creating media and trainings online. I even became a radio DJ at one point!

Em sits at a radio DJ mixing desk smiling and holding a pair of headphones. Across the desk two guests smile and talk into their microphones.
Hosting a radio show for Living Options Devon

The huge surprise for me was how much better I do at virtual events than in-person ones. There’s so much less sensory and social information to digest. Lockdown was good for me, my career, and my family. The kids enjoyed homeschooling and thrived with social pressures taken off them. Simply wearing comfy clothes each day has been liberating. My whole system has resisted the return to normal. This has shown up as better clarity in what I will and won’t take on. I welcome it.

Due to a very shocking and sad bereavement (a kind friend and boss) I was acting CEO at one job for a while while I helped them find their new lead. They wanted me to carry the torch, but it didn’t feel quite right to me for a number of reasons. I was content to help out during the initial shock and recovery, and make space for someone new when the time was right. I’ve been bereaved by violence or suicide several times in my life, so I had a different kind of lived experience to bring. It’s been sad, and often lonely. I’ll remember it as a deeply humbling time.

My daily work has centred less on autism awareness and advocacy, but I still managed a couple of events – a chat with the fantastic Autistic on Wheels in 2021 about what it’s like to be autistic in the workplace. For this year’s Autism Acceptance Month I hosted an online drop-in about autism and mental health, which was brilliantly attended and caught the attention of our local Adult Autism and ADHD service.

Cartoon of Planet Earth and the circular Recovery Devon logo inside a rainbow "infinity" loop. "World Autism Acceptance Day - Autistic Mental Health Matters."

The event was a mixture of celebration of ourselves and a call to change; I reported on two recent pieces of research around autistic suicide and mis-diagnosis of adults. You can read the write-up here. Something that really touched me was trying to hold a minute’s silence for all the autistic people who did not get the help they needed in time, and finding that everyone in my group was deeply appreciative, and moved by it. It needs marking; there are too many.

Somatic studies

At the end of 2019 I took a huge, heartfelt leap and signed up for a module of training with the Institute for Integrative Bodywork and Movement Therapy. I’d been following the tide of interest in the soma with my own explorations of bodywork and movement over the last 15 years. All the classic somatic books lined up on my shelves; The Body Keeps the Score, When The Body Says No, The Body Remembers. Then I started this incredibly deep dive with IBMT and my appetite (and bookshelf) just grew, and grew, and grew! I discovered the work of Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen (and was lucky to attend a couple of her seasonal series of teachings). I gobbled up Linda Hartley’s books on body wisdom and somatic psychotherapy. I discovered new thinkers and writers on the deep mystery and mechanics of human form. I embraced learnings on human gestation, birth, anatomy, and the development of movement as a framework for the manifestation of our will in the world.

IBMT logo of a cell "Institute for Integrative Bodywork and Movement Therapy." Ten people stand in a gym hall in a circle with their arms outstretched to each other in preparation for an Authentic Movement session.
Authentic movement circle with IBMT

I ended up completing the full training over 3 years and am now completing my case study hours, working slowly towards Registered Somatic Movement Therapist. My second year essay was on somatic approches to ASC1. I am deeply touched by how being in movement, accompanied by a compassionate witness, can allow expression of deep personal truths and traumas, and bring potential for choice and repatterning. It has worked magic for me and my peers, who have become friends for life. I’ve managed to weave these teachings into my work. I see huge applications for neurodivergent folk, but I want to take things responsibly and carefully. This is why I opted for a longer training that leads to registration. Too many have-a-go heroes out there – and we can celebrate that, too – but I owe it to the people I want to serve to get this right. And so, it takes time, and care.

Anything else?

Well… yes! I’ve learned a great deal about loving and being loved (such a privilege and responsibility), relationships, neurology, nutrition. I’m reading Internal Family Systems theory. I’ve become a peer trainer with the NHS and bring somatic learnings to the management of anxiety, depression, and PTSD. I’ve gone back to the piano and am almost back to playing as well as I could when a teenager. Markmaking has formed part of my course, which has given me a new love of pastels and painting. I’ve watched my two amazing kids grow into a teenager and adult, so able to express their feelings, ask for help, and advocate for themselves. I’ve embraced open water swimming and last summer I co-facilitated 30 folk for their first try in the water to support their mental health. Being in wetsuit and swimming boots makes me feel invincible!

Scene of a picnic blanket on a flat sandy bleach on a sunny day. The sea is calm in the background. In the foreground is a book called "wisdom of the body moving" with a stone on top to stop the pages blowing in the wind.
Reading after a swim!

I’ve also often been overwhelmed, and desperate. Autistic people don’t enjoy change or ambiguity, and the world has served up hefty doses each day. Being so god damned interested in the world, quick to take in information but slow to integrate it, means I often get saturated. The pores of my sponge-system get logged, blocked, and heavy, and since I didn’t come equipped with a “tank full” cutoff or an overflow valve, I often need some time to integrate. It happens to us all, but when you’re autistic it can be stealthier and faster. I love that I know this about myself, and see it (mostly!) as a difference that needs adjustment, and planning, and care. Gratitude for our collecting learning (and unlearning) abounds. It’s such an interesting time to be alive.

So, there we have it. I managed to blog before 3 years was up! I’d love to hear how you are, what you’re up to. Drop me a line.

Warm wishes – Em

Coming to you live on the airwaves…

Paper Lifeboat joins a podcast and gets invited onto the “proper” radio

A few weeks ago, my friends at A.I.R. Team Global asked me onto their podcast as a guest to talk about my blog and my work.

I’ve been interviewed before for various campaigns and work projects on TV & radio, but this was my first time being on a podcast as “just me.” Luckily Rowan, Anna, John and Carl knew what they were doing, and made me feel right at home.

We covered some serious subjects, such as the gender gap in diagnosis, and internalised ableism, but we had a lot of fun, too. I even debuted my two-step seagull deterrent program, which involves weeing into a bucket and waving bunting on a stick. (I live on the coast and have spent the last 6 years trying – humanely – to deter seagulls from nesting on my office roof.) You’ll have to hear it to believe it…

A curious offshoot of this is that we’ve been invited to talk on our local radio station, BBC Radio Devon. Michael Chequer has asked us to speak on his evening show at 8pm today, Tuesday 2nd July. We’ll be talking about Team A.I.R. and our favourite musical decade. I’ve picked the 1980s – I spent much of my childhood overseas, and chart music from the U.K. was a lovely way to feel connected with home.

Tonight, I’m going to be the team chaffeur and cheerleader – it’s Team A.I.R.’s work that is in the spotlight – but I confess I’m feeling a little nervous about being on the “proper” radio as myself, rather than for something work-related.

Maybe I’ll take my crochet and a big sign saying “Don’t swear… or talk about throwing urine at seagulls.”

Making movies (and masking!)

On being trusted to teach others about autistic masking.

Thanks for the brilliant response to my blog post on 10 milestones of autistic self-acceptance. I promised a follow-up article about each one and that’s yet to happen, but for a lovely reason…

The Autism Plan asked last month if I would help them to produce a video about social masking. Their request came in while I was on holiday, walking in a very genteel National Trust garden. I reckon Sir Francis Drake’s ghost was rattled by my very loud “yayyyy!” and skipping about with excitement. (The National Trust volunteers certainly were.)

Wisteria, you’re breaking my heart…

I was deeply honoured to be entrusted with advising others on the subject of autistic masking – something I have done for much of my life without realising, something that’s had a very negative impact on me, and been confusing for others. I personally believe that masking (for any neurotype) is the biggest contributor to loneliness, and may explain the higher suicide rate in autistic women. It’s important, and it’s misunderstood.

Spending a week consolidating all my learning about social masking and its impact was of huge value. Distilling reams of notes and research into a few short video clips required discipline, and challenged my tendancy to get distracted and waffle. I managed to keep it succinct, but I’m lucky that they have a great editor to help me!

I’m sharing an excerpt on Facebook from the training video they’ll be offering soon. As for the 10 milestone articles, an article about social masking follows soon. I can’t wait to offer a little comfort and guidance to all of you working so hard to “get it right” socially.

It’s okay be to someone who squeals and flaps and cuddles flowers and trees in public. Really it is.

Tweets, quacks and… what noise does a cygnet make?

Last year, I discovered the #actuallyautistic community on Twitter. These brilliant folk have been the source of much information, validation, and friendship.

One brave soul from their ranks noticed that she and I lived close together, and suggested a meet-up. Having both acknowledged that socialising with strangers was usually very low on our to-do lists, a procrastinate-tastic period followed. Then, thanks again to Twitter’s #actuallyautistic community, fate gave us a nudge with an event that seemed designed exclusively for us… in the shape of “The Duck.”

Penned by Rhi Lloyd-Williams of Autact Theatre, this one-actor showcase by Lucy Theobald spoke to us both in a voice so clear and pure, a voice that said, “no, it’s not just you.” Delivered as a monologue, it describes a young autistic woman’s attempts to come to terms with the masks others wear, and discover which might fit her. By turns funny, hopeful, and heart-breaking, it blends delicacy with a deep dive into how it feels to be at odds with the world, and yet madly in love with it and wanting to belong.

“The usual representation of autism is not someone like me. They’re usually children and male. It’s so important that we see autistic women out there too. That representation is vital.

Rhi Lloyd-Williams

And so it was that we two Twitter strangers quacked happily with ideas and relief right through the 3 hour round trip to see it, freed up by the permission the show gave us to tell our stories and connect.

A sliver of my ever-changing Good Things Gallery

The flyer has been pinned to my office noticeboard ever since. It’s now a part of my “good things happen” gallery. The reverse even has origami instructions to make your very own paper duck. (Wouldn’t that look nice next to a paper lifeboat..?)

The Duck is doing another fly-past near me soon; this time, to Exeter’s Cygnet Theatre next Friday 15th February.

I’ve already bought my fistful of tickets to see it again, and can’t recommend it highly enough.

If you think you’re a duck and would like to come, but are lost for someone to sit with, drop me a line – maybe I’ll see you there!

Before and after

Travelling home from today’s National Suicide Prevention Alliance Conference with a head full of ideas and a heart full of hope. Lots to share in the days to come; tweeted some highlights of the day as it unfolded. For now, I’m (happily, justifiably) wiped out.

Here’s the before and after pictures!

9am – raring to go with Chukumeka Maxwell, founder of ATPS

After – decompressing on the train with crochet and crumbles!

Huge thanks to Action to Prevent Suicide for inviting me.

How many lifeboats is too many?

Starting Paper Lifeboat has taken me a long time. Five years, to be exact. One of the things that’s held me back is wondering whether the world really needs yet another autism and mental health blogger. Aren’t there enough of us out there already? Won’t my words just sink like a stone in the churning waters of voices?

This is great fuel for an inner critic. Mine’s been admonishing me that there are other things I Really Should Be Focusing On. Such as the impending void of Brexit, climate change’s implications for our children, and the refugee crisis. Brains are helpful like that; they love to remind you how impotent you are in the face of major, systemic problems. And of course, that impotence is hard to argue against. It taints everything with pointlessness. Before you know it you’ve been under the duvet for three hours. And so the challenge becomes to Do Something Anyway.

So it was that, on Sunday, I took myself off for a walk by the sea. I’d taken this blog down a day after starting it, terrified that telling my story was going to bring Brexit-sized calamity down on myself and everyone I loved (thanks, brain.) Grey seas battered the prom as the soggy January wind blew all over my catastrophising. The weather’s solidarity with my mood made me feel a little better, but soon I was quite cold (having failed to plan my outfit properly for the weather, basing it instead on Just Bloody Well Getting Out For A Walk Before I Sabotage Even That.)

“It is surprising how many unoriginal thoughts we have”

Martine Bachelor

And so I dived into a place I have probably walked past twice a week for many years without stopping – the RNLI gift shop. Inside this teeny space crammed with cheery goodies sat two women whose ages I would not dare to guess at. Dressed in jaunty scarves and woollens, they chatted brightly, Britishly, about the weather and the vagaries of their new kettle (the hot topic of the morning). I was comforted by the tradition of it all, and soon we were chatting away about their new stock.

Making suitably interested noises about their gift cards, tote bags, and travel sweets, I suddenly realised that their branding colours were the same ones as I’d chosen for this site. I found myself staring at the children’s gifts in their navy and orange livery, and when my eyes settled on a lifeboat itself, I started to laugh. I was in a freaking navy and orange lifeboat shop. A shop that, as a U.K. seaside dweller, had been in my peripheral vision for decades. I hadn’t set out to copy them, and yet I totally, if unconsciously, had.

There are very few original ideas in the world. We all soak up influence like sponges, and in turn, influence more than we can understand. Maybe it’s time to accept this and take my little bit of influence out into the world after all. It might not be new, it might not be original. But the vanity of not offering anything at all is a poor excuse not to try.

The following day, I re-published Paper Lifeboat. It has already reached 9 countries and over 600 people have read so far. Turns out there’s a need for more lifeboats. An endless chain of demand and supply, in fact. I’d been demanding something like Paper Lifeboat for so long. Time to get over myself, and supply it.

I’m going to change my colours eventually – it’s the right thing to do (not that the RNLI need protecting from my mighty empire!) As a peace offering in the meantime, I bought some of their lovely gifts.

I think I’m going to need more of that tea…

Welcome to Paper Lifeboat!

It’s hard to remember that this day will never come again. That the time is now and the place is here and that there are no second chances at a single moment.

Jeanette Winterson

Welcome to the Paper Lifeboat blog. Founded in Spring 2019, its aim is to connect with adults learning that they are autistic – to offer education, entertainment, and some much-needed solace.

Here goes…

I’ve always felt like an alien on this planet.

As a child in the 1970s, I used to think, “Any minute now, someone is going to let me in on what’s really going on here. Until then, I have to play along. If I just keep pretending, if I just keep smiling, I’ll be given the keys to the kingdom and my life can really start.”

I learned to mimic and tell stories, to make people laugh, to act and to put on a good face. I just had to be patient, I told myself. Eventually I would pass the secret test, and someone – perhaps a parent, perhaps a teacher, perhaps even a benevolent committee of some kind – would take me into a quiet room, sit me down, and congratulate me. They’d tell me the reasons why nothing made sense, everyone was pretending, and everything was just a bit, well, weird.

Weird summed up my days. I couldn’t keep track of physical objects and was forever losing and breaking things, including my own body. I found eating to be uncomfortable and pleasureless, and couldn’t understand why we performed this bodily function in groups. I didn’t like to be hugged or touched, preferring instead to soothe my senses with repetitive fiddling that drove others mad (particularly the few people whose arms or hands I did like to stroke for comfort). I laughed at things no-one else found funny, and missed things that others did. I often zoned out without knowing why, and forgot huge expanses of the day, yet at night I couldn’t settle to sleep. I was probably hungry and exhausted most of the time, but couldn’t tell. I still didn’t know what was normal, so there was nothing to compare it with. I still hadn’t been told.

Teenage years arrived, and I was still awaiting the chat. By then I’d had some wonderful, happy adventures in this peculiar and miraculous world. Academically bright, outspoken, and creative, I bounced through life doing reasonably well on the surface. But I never quite fitted in anywhere. Whatever the class, club, or clique, I could give an approximation of being a member, but would often find myself inexplicably excluded before too long. I loved people, but they confused me. I would crave time alone so that I could weep, rock, and shake without attracting attention. I didn’t know how to “hang out” with others, or obey the unwritten rules of group membership and loyalty. I started to become a loner. I stopped acting and singing. All of a sudden I didn’t want anyone’s eyes on me. I made myself small to pass under radars; without anyone realising, I was getting left behind.

By my early 20s I was beginning to think that the “chat” was never coming. Still, I persisted in all the right things; I graduated, and went on to hold down demanding work in the emergency services. I married and became a mother, I took a worthy charity job, I arranged birthday parties and went to toddler groups. It all seemed like a fairy tale, and that’s exactly what I was doing – following a narrative and waiting for the chapter where it all made sense, where I could start to feel the benefits of it all, instead of feeling scared and overwhelmed all the time.

The disconnect between the two was painful; I was regularly suicidal and self-harming. I covered it well with masking because I felt so ashamed of my inability to cope, but this exhausted me. I’d regularly collapse knowing something was wrong, but not what, and not feeling able to connect with anyone who wanted to help.

Once I entered my 30s, I realised I had to go out and find this “chat” for myself. Action was needed if I was to continue to function at work and as a parent – and once I became a mum, I couldn’t hide my not-coping any longer. With great difficulty, I broke the pattern of generations and asked for help.

Mental health services did their best, but never really settled on a diagnosis for me, and whatever it was ran much deeper than anti-depressants or therapy could touch. Time after time I’d be signed off a course of therapy or drugs with the needle having barely moved; therapists would say, “I’m sorry we didn’t make much difference for you.” I’d always learn something from therapies like CBT or EMDR, but I couldn’t really execute it; like watching a gymnast somersaulting, I could see how it worked, but couldn’t somersault my own, unwieldy self.

Eventually, I gave up involving other people at all, apart from a small tribe of beloved weirdos who loved me fiercely. The “chat” wasn’t coming, I decided. No-one, anywhere, knew what was going on. I resigned myself to being lost, relying on my own wonky coping strategies to get through each day.

I’d always been aware that autism existed. But it wasn’t until I first started working closely with autistic people in my late 30s (first as a mental health worker, and then as a service manager) that I realised it might be a factor for me. I related much more to autistic people than to others. They made sense. I liked the way they approached things, their unmasked socialising, their sense of humour.

Both my children’s schools were noticing differences in them, too. In the 1970s and 80s, so long as your marks were high and you weren’t misbehaving, no-one minded if you spent each lunchbreak locked in the toilet, or sitting on a wall talking to yourself. In the 1990s, I could play the part of a coolly aloof student, or a boffin-like employee. In the 21st century, things got noticed. Or maybe I was just more aware. Maybe… maybe someone did have a clue, after all. And so it was that I started the long journey towards the realisation that I am autistic.

In time, I’ll share the things that helped me to acknowledge it, how I was assessed, and what a difference it has made. (A huge turn of the tide came with an article about someone else like me, which I originally read on a blog just like this one; it inspired my name, and I’d love to find and thank the writer.)

For now, you might be wondering whether I’ve still given up all hope of “the chat” – the one where someone would give me the magic keys I needed to make sense of the world. So, yes. I have given up my 40 year hope that someone would explain it all to me. Instead, I’ve realised something rather wonderful…

We all co-create the reality we find ourselves in from one moment to the next, based on our experience, learning, and best-guesses. These are based on perceptions that are individual to each person, and our ability to express how the world looks to us varies wildly.

No-one really knows what’s going on, or what “normal” looks like. There is no committee, there is no “chat.” I used to think that was terrifying, but now I find it exciting. I’m ready to have agency in the second half of my life, rather than be tossed about on the waves.

People still yearn for “the chat,” though. And that’s exactly why I’m writing – to take part in the conversation. You can just listen for now – I understand that feels more comfortable at first. So I don’t mind laying my experiences out for you. It was a blog that first tossed me a life raft, so I’m paying it forward so that you can start your very own chat – with yourself and the people you choose to involve – before too long.

Wishing you well on your journey of discovery and self-acceptance!