Aspies on Mental Health

Aspies on Mental Health: Speaking for Ourselves, Edited by Luke Beardon and Dean Worton

This is a brilliant book. I say brilliant because it is basically a collection of short stories written by people with Asperger syndrome (AS) on specific topics, experiences and issues. It is highly personalised and informal and some of the stories are little more than “experiences”.

However, it is this that makes this book so interesting and such a valuable read. If you are affected by AS, or work in some capacity associated with it, you will almost certainly find something in here that you can relate to and learn from.

From a business/managerial perspective, I gathered something from every chapter; something that resonated with something that I had experienced or encountered as a manager.

Luke Beardon is senor lecturer in Autism at Sheffield Hallam University in the UK. Dean Worton has AS and supports adults with it in the UK. Each of the chapters is introduced by Luke who sets the scene by providing a background commentary about the issue at hand.

For example, Chapter 17 looks at the effect of criticism on people with AS and they react to and deal with it. Criticism in the workplace is inevitable of course, and insight like the book provides is one way of learning how to deal with it.

Beardon starts by differentiating between mental illness and mental ill health. Those with Asperger syndrome (AS) are no more likely to experience the former than ohters, but are more likely to develop mental health problems. The latter is regarded as a secondary psychiatric condition which is environmentally influenced, so the key to development is to change the environment, not the person with AS. If people with AS are forced to exist in the normal world without making any changes, it can be extremely detrimental to their well-being.

Into each of the chapters…..

Chapter 1. What Services Worked for Me: Janet Christmas

The section talks about what are the correct mental support services for someone with Asperger. In particular, how normal services for neuro-typicals are not relevant or appropriate for someone with AS. According to Christmas, any professional dealing with a person with AS needs to be aware of, and understand, the condition specifically: it is important to treat the individual as a person with AS rather than simplistically “treating” a mental illness. The chapter also talks about how being in inappropriate jobs and work circumstances causes stress and meltdowns; two of the latter are described.

MJ: I would certainly concur with this. I am what I am and, though I have certainly made adjustments from a personal perspective, I believe that getting the environment right for a manager with AS is essential. However, there are also some useful insights over-and-above the usual advice afforded in this area such as ensuring you have solitude.

There were a couple of specifics that I additionally noted. The need to drink water is, I think, useful and, in particular, the dangers of engaging in passive behaviours and being non-assertive. The latter is especially important in a work context. The key to demonstrating assertive behaviour is by adopting many of the positive assertions that Janet outlines at the end of the chapter: not sacrificing self-worth for peer acceptance, always being worthy of other people’s respect and acceptance and never giving up on oneself.

These are all relevant and extremely advantageous actions to adopt. I have learnt to be and respect myself and not to try and compromise my standing or who I am in any way because of the negative aspects that I have sometimes been conscious of as a result of my condition. I may be different, but that does mean I cannot be, or am any lesser as, a manager. From a support perspective, having a mentor who can guide and advise me – even if they do not, as is the case with me, know that I am affected by Asperger syndrome – is hugely advantageous and beneficial.

Chapter 2. Coping with Depression: Positive Advice for Aspies: Debbie Allen

Debbie’s section highlights just how much of an influence a working environment can have on the mental health of a person with AS. She doesn’t think she has ever been badly depressed at work. She has been very low and there have been times when she has had to pick herself up, but she has never got to the stage whereby she felt that she couldn’t go on.

Debbie was in a job for 18 years but eventually got dismissed. She took it personally, but later found a lot of other people had been dismissed also. Like her, it was not down to incompetence; it was just the way the company operated. Unlike her colleagues who didn’t take it personally and got over it very quickly however, Debbie unfortunately didn’t!

Debbie has recently come to the conclusion that much of her depression has been caused by her lack of assertiveness and the reason for this has been her believing that she was odd in comparison to others and, in some way, a second-class citizen. Consequently, she has made a big effort not to be pushed around or used by other people and her self-esteem has improved. She has concluded that if you are a quiet person, it is even more important to practice assertiveness as bullies assume you are easy pickings.

She also no longer accepts that she must automatically put other people and their wishes first or feel that she is a bad person if she doesn’t. Doing the latter is very bad for self-confidence as it is though it doesn’t matter if you are unhappy so long as the other person is contented.

To overcome depression she goes for long walks and lets her mind go without having to concentrate on talking to someone. It is important she believes to occupy the mind which she has done by doing courses and keeping busy as well as having a routine. In addition, she also asserts that it is important not to be frightened about what people think of you. Be nice to yourself and utilise good diet, exercise, yoga and get lots of sleep.

MJ: I resonate strongly with much of what Debbie says and has experienced. Though I too have never been depressed per se at work, there have been times – one in particular – when I have become very low and embittered about events in a work context. However, looking back I can see how it too was not ultimately down to me; indeed subsequent events proved me to be right in everything that I did both personally and professionally.

The key, as Debbie’s colleagues have done, is to move on quickly. This is something that, in the above mentioned case, I was never able to do because the role and the company meant so much to me and the way that I was treated personally meant it left a lasting stain mentally.

However, moving on must be accomplished. In today’s work context, I believe that there are no jobs-for-life and accepting this, and the fact that one may well get caught up in organisational politics or corporate re-structures, means that it could well be unavoidable. In addition, I also recently left a company that did not provide any support and was culturally and professionally wholly unsuitable for me; getting out was very much in my interests too.

Accepting that I am who I am and that there is nothing wrong per se with having Asperger syndrome or allowing it to make me feel lesser in some way is something that I have drilled into my psyche. I can also see looking back how, like Debbie, my lack of assertiveness enabled one individual to suppress both me and my views to detrimental, terminal effect, partially because I perceived that I was lesser or in some way to blame. My Asperger sense of fairness meant that I reacted excessively to his criticism initially which, subsequently, provoked the individual further instead of assertively confronting him in an inappropriate manner. My propensity to also not fully communicate and convey my [unique] inner thoughts meant that others did see my views or understand why things needed to change.

Like Debbie, I did not put myself first and worried too much about what one person thought of me. These are not errors that I have allowed to happen again.

Chapter 3. Alternative Issues for Dealing with Mental Health Issues – Vicky Bliss

Luke introduces this section by outlining how many of the solutions advocated by Vicky rely on the individual changing. However, an important, associated consideration is the external environment: if this is the problem then expecting the individual to change is both inappropriate and potentially damaging. In addition, many of the changes may be impossible. As a result, Vicky advocates “solution focused brief therapy”.

According to Vicky, she could be diagnosed either way: either tentatively diagnosed as mentally unwell, and at high risk of further mental deterioration or; she could simply be thought of as eccentric or passable as mentally healthy. People with AS are particularly susceptible to the “professional knows best approach” from mental health workers. However, many things that are normal for someone with AS, are not considered normal by the majority of the population. The problem Vicky believes is that a conventional mental health worker will have trouble in identifying a list of behaviours or thoughts that appear outside the range of “normal”.

A person with AS has different mental processes meaning they secure labels such as “difficult” or “resistant to change”. However, this is considered normal behaviour by the person with AS. Consequently, a lot of mentally healthy people with AS get unnecessarily labelled as mentally unhealthy due to a lack of understanding from the mental health worker. As Vicky says, what she has is a difference in the way she mentally manipulates information.

According to Vicky, solution based therapy is good for people with AS. It is a respectful way of approaching the differences between client and therapist, meaning that any fix to “a problem” does need to be identified. Instead, the worker listens to what is already working for the client and works out how the client can do more of what is working to find a solution by doing what the client wants rather than forcing them to adopt an approach that is unsuitable or which they cannot implement.

As Vicky concludes, I am quite mentally healthy thank you very much….. I am just fine.

MJ: where would this leave a manager with AS working in a more responsible, white-collar type position? Well rather than talk about a mental health worker, mentor is, I think, a more appropriate analogy.

For me this, as someone who has never been diagnosed, my Asperger in a corporate context involves having a manager who understands me and can satisfy my requirements. I believe that I am “fine” to use Vicky’s words, but I do have certain needs: the key to success is that I ensure that I communicate those needs to my superior. I know what is right for me, so I make sure that my manager understands and knows what that is.

These include a clear and regular line of communication with him/her; having my own workplace that affords solitude; identifying and agreeing clear objectives and timescales and; assistance with understanding corporate politics. I also like to largely be left alone to work on, and achieve, my objectives.

The danger, of course, is having to work for a manager who does not, and is incapable of, understanding me. If this occurs I don’t try and make it happen; I exit – and fast!

Chapter 4 This Aspie Life: The Undiagnosed Aspie Experience – Ball

In this section 8Ball seeks to explode the myth that people with AS cannot communicate effectively and don’t have a sense of humour. People with AS can mask very skilfully the very mental health/cognitive issues they encounter. However, many appear to be “coping” when there is a real need for support and recognition of the fundamental issues affecting their lives.

Mental illness means emotional distress, confused thinking and acting strangely and everyone experiences this at some stage in their life; most, however, “return to conformance” quickly. Someone with AS is not mentally ill, just different and this is far from being unique. The differences themselves are not what constitutes’ mental illness per se.

According to 8Ball, NT’s can be made to “go mad” if certain changes are made to their living conditions and the same is true of those with AS. However, the social environment is determined by and for NT’s, meaning that Aspies can become a little lost when it comes to invisible rituals and without access to encouragement and guidance from those with a shared perspective.

If AS is undiagnosed, and like with 8Ball, the person doesn’t want people to know, then finding a place and purpose in the world may become an issue as – as 8Ball found, you became aware of being left behind. 8Ball didn’t know what he wanted to do and so became directionless: he chose a University course that was inappropriate and struggled socially as well. Eventually however he developed coping strategies.

Some of the things he learned include ….

Humour. The usefulness of this shouldn’t be overestimated as it helps deal with frustration. Being older meant that 8Ball found it very easy to blame himself for every mistake that happened. However, he accepts that he is still learning and now takes a step back at times and laughs at himself and tries to remember to do something better the next time rather than simply feeling inferior.

Keep Reaching Out to Others. 8Ball doesn’t hide himself away from people if he experiences a rejection or something bad. As someone with AS he accepts that he is as dependent on others like everyone else. In addition, he also believes it is essential to get out of the comfort zone of only mixing with Aspie-like people. Instead, he confides in an NT person when necessary and accepts that he may have negative experiences.

Watching NTs and Studying Their Behaviour. It helps not only to copy things like eye-contact, but also to take an interest in people. Asking open questions can lead to common ground; avoid dropping into monologues about obsessions and focus on common ground; listen at least as much as you are talking. 8Ball talks about the book The Games People Play by Eric Berne. I too have read this and found it useful.

The Link between Internal and External States. When feeling down, 8Ball tries to eat healthily, exercise and maintain general hygiene. When feeling low he seeks to remember that he will not always feel this way; instead he takes a walk and reminds himself that things will get better.

Break the Cycle of Guilt. Depression usually comes with a feeling of guilt, but this prevents taking active steps to improve things. If you do feel despair, work on in despair, but continue to work to finish things and work yourself through the stage. Focus on one small thing that will improve your situation and put aside feelings of guilt in order to continue.

Gullibility, Deception and Hierarchies. Being badly let down means you are less likely to trust others, but this can be good for relationships and mental health so develop defensive measures. Hone your critical faculties and question claims that appear too good. Get to the truth by adopting scientific methods such as questioning and critical rational thought. Do not allow also something to be true just because you want it to be; watch out also for deceit by group consent. NT’s arrange themselves into hierarchies centred around authority which can cause problems for Aspies. Think about the context you are in and the role of the authority figure. If it is your boss, shut up and accept it even when you know you are right. Accept views that emanate from experience and knowledge.

MJ: from a management perspective, this is one of the most invaluable chapters. There is so much here that is not only sound but very good advice also. To start with, I certainly find humour useful if diffusing tension and helping to ensure that I come across as more relaxed, and so try to use it wherever possible.

Reaching out to others is also a strategy that I have most definitely adopted – especially with people I find difficult or have taken an initial dislike to. At work, unless someone is being totally disagreeable or doing something that is directly detrimental to me or my position, I take people as they come. I have come to accept that I need to work with people and secure their support if I am to be fully effective. I have also come to understand that I cannot afford to alienate people whatever my personal view of them.

I too study the behaviour of effective people and focus on the certainty that, if I do feel low or unmotivated, then that feeling will not preside for ever. Questioning people or facts if I feel uncomfortable is another beneficial tactic. I do not allow my Asperger tendency to accept things at face value or interpret things literally to automatically prevail, nor do I challenge authority ever in a negative way: if need be, I bite my tongue.

Chapter 5: Embracing Autism as a Neurological Difference, Rather than a Mental Disorder – Melanie Smith

The core message of this section is that people with AS need to be accepted as who they are, but also treated in different ways because of their individuality. The author makes the point about accepting oneself for who one is!

MJ: whilst agreeing totally with this, I would add the point that one does also need to make adjustments towards other people. Unless you disclose your condition, colleagues will not understand why you are acting in the way you are: as mentioned, help them to help yourself by explaining what you need by informing and reaching out to them.

Chapter 6: Getting the Right Diagnosis and Its Impact on Mental Health – Cornish

Cornish talks about late diagnosis, whilst Beardon makes the point that this chapter it is a rant – and quite justifiably.

According to Cornish many people with Asperger are indoctrinated from an early stage not to question and to trust blindly anyone in positions of authority and power. Society depends on everyone fitting into the proper designated boxes.

Teachers and pupils bullied Cornish at school until he lost his self-esteem, self-worth and self-confidence. For him, the thing that hurts most now looking back is: “I can’t believe I let them do this to me!” As Cornish rightly states, Aspergians are very good at running from things, but have little clue as to where they are running to.

To overcome this, Cornish developed the propensity “self-empower”. He learnt everything he could about Asperger syndrome and filled in the all the blanks. As part of this process, he needed to forsake the NT world.

As a result of this, Cornish turned his back on the NHS and its authority as a source of support. Instead, he found an Aspergian counsellor who helped undo all the damage and the chapter highlights how essential to track down the right specialists; doing anything less simply stores up trouble for yourself.

MJ: I found this one of the most interesting and beneficial chapters of all. Yes, it is a rant, but by being blunt and getting everything out in the open, Cornish has self-helped and been able to make things happen to beneficial, personal effect.

I believe that I have done this too and would urge everyone with AS working in a management or other responsible position to do likewise. Everyone is different. The key, I have found, is to find what works best for you by reading, exploring and implementing personal strategies that enable one to cope. Cornish has successfully done this: good for him!

Chapter 7: Positive Mental Attitude – Coping with Setbacks, Knowing Your Own Strengths and Finding Happiness Any Way You Can – Dean Worton

The key message in this section is: whatever situation you are in just be yourself. Develop a good daily routine to secure a rhythm in your life.

As Dean I think rightly says: if someone takes your self-esteem away from you, it can a long time to get it back. Don’t ever let anyone else carry your self-esteem around for you; always ensure that you are in control of it. No matter how hard life gets, always make the very best of it you can. If one opportunity becomes closed, then look for another one. Also, don’t ever assume that opportunities for you will be limited because of your Asperger syndrome.

The key to good mental health is to never give up. Do not think of yourself as disabled.

MJ: I think that the key message here based on my experience as a manager with AS is: always ensure that you retain your self-esteem. I know from my working career just how important this is for someone with AS. There have been, as mentioned above, times when, to put it bluntly, I have lost my self-confidence. As Dean says, it can take a while to get it back.

Experience has taught me that having AS does not mean I am any lesser as a person for it. I have the right to self-respect and a duty to myself not to let anyone at work – or anywhere else for that matter – take it away from me. No-one would ever do this again to me in a work context; if they tried to, and held the position that afforded them the power to do so, I would assert that this is unacceptable and, if necessary, would walk away to ensure that I remain in control.

What I also think is important is working hard to take advantage of opportunities by looking forward not back. I build on my experience – and mistakes – from the past and move on. I will always try to be myself – and exploit the benefits and advantages that come with it. Because of the inner strength that my Asperger affords me, I never give up!

Chapter 8: “It’s All in Your Head: The Dangers of Mis-diagnosis – Neil Shepherd

This chapter talks about the potential for, and the dangers of, misdiagnosis that result from looking at a person who is mentally ill, rather than, someone who simply has Asperger!

The author believes that Aspergics may be more susceptible to mental health problems for two reasons: physiological and psychological – or maybe a combination of both. The former may be a “hardware” predisposition via the brain being wired differently, whilst psychologically the world simply isn’t designed for Aspergics. Either way, it causes pressure and stress and anxiety that the mainstream population cannot understand and these inherent differences “may” leave people with AS open to non “classic” mental health problems.

It is the communication, interpersonal skills and emotional understanding issues that may make someone with Asperger susceptible to facets such as depression. Despite sometimes coming across as cold, logical and emotionless, Shepherd believes that Asperger people are still human beings who need human contact and social interaction to avoid Aspergic traits becoming exacerbated and the person becoming isolated and feeling excluded.

In addition to this, difficulty in understanding situations and picking up on the sub-conscious forms of communication further heighten the feeling of social exclusion. The AS person is very aware of their environment and other people’s seeming reluctance to accept and socialise with them. The problem is: what can they do about it?

Going out and making friends is not easy or even at times possible. Other people may not know how to respond when confronted by this “weird” person who is ever so slightly “different”. It creates a vicious circle that can be difficult to break.

A lot of the author’s depression has stemmed from his work context. A boss maybe be hassling you or a colleague annoying you. The solution normally is to go and talk to them, but this may not be easy for someone with AS if the complaint is about them or a situation they have caused. They may be acutely aware of upsetting the person meaning that they simply “put up” rather than express what they are really thinking. The issue then becomes one of emotions not being effectively released.

According to Shepherd, being able to talk to people is very important, as is releasing associated thoughts and emotions. For an Aspergic this is not easy as it involves explaining emotions, feelings and thoughts that are not readily understood. Beating depression involves identifying the contributory factors: finding out what’s at the root of the problem and then, hopefully, fixing it – work, relationships or factors in the environment. Often however, the “problem” may be a combination of factors or something “small” that has grown out of proportion.

Getting help according to Shepherd is vital and is not a sign of failure or weakness. If a person with AS is down they must not retreat into themselves. Instead focus on how to get through each day; once you have got through one you can get through another. However, this alone is not enough: you need to establish goals; ones’ that can be achieved quickly and give you a boost.

As the book asserts, setting goals beyond Aspergic limits is a bad way to begin: start by doing something you know you can do to boost confidence. Shepherd knows that he will have bad days and get low, but he also knows that good things will happen.

MJ: firstly, as I have continually said, I don’t believe from my own experience that the way my mind operates negates me from working in a senior management position – quite the opposite in fact. I believe that the way my thought mode operates enables me to produce some highly original insight and work output.

Conversely, I do believe that the world of work presents challenges for someone with AS; indeed, being as it is an artificial scenario, having Asperger heightens the challenges; it does not, however, mean that they are insuperable.

I do believe, like Shepherd, a manager/worker needs contact with his fellow employees, not just for professional and but also for personal reasons. From a practical perspective, I have learnt that I simply have to form effective relationships with people to secure the information and support I require to enable me to achieve my own objectives. I also “want” to get on with my colleagues as fitting in gives me a sense of belonging.

Proactively reaching out to people has helped me to achieve this and also helps reduce an inner perception that I am “different” Doing so has meant that I don’t simply put up with things that are unacceptable or that emotions remain pent-up. It also helps prevent small problems becoming large, persistent ones and growing out of proportion. In a work setting, achieving this is invaluable.

I have also come to appreciate that, providing it does not become automatic and that it is when I genuinely need it, asking for help not only helps resolve specific problems, but also assists in other areas such as forging effective working relationships. I have been guilty of not seeking assistance in the past and of bottling up difficulties inside me. I have found that, if I genuinely need help in an area that I don’t know something about, then most colleagues are willing to assist.

Getting through each day? Well, I do know that I need to “slow down” to focus on priorities and work steadily and methodically through them until completion by not allowing myself to become distracted. Once I have satisfied and cleared one objective, it motivates me to address another. I know as well that if things go wrong I can get through them and difficulties will be always persistent. The latter point also applies to my state of mind when I am low or have suffered a setback that is hindering my motivation.

Chapter 9: Alcohol, Self-Harm and the Benefits of Exercise – Alex Brown

This chapter looks at various lifestyle factors relating to Asperger syndrome.

Alex believed that when she became an adult the feelings of insecurity and negativity would go away and that she would become a happier person. She has had to come to terms with the fact that she has not.

Throughout her time at school and University she felt that everyone disliked her. She would often feel depressed for no reason. Her partner felt he couldn’t cope with her moods and the effect it was having on their relationship.

She couldn’t see why she was being irrational and was over-reacting in certain situations. Things would get into her head and she couldn’t stop herself from feeling sad. When low she would need to shut herself away from everyone meaning that sometimes people would think that she was with them when she was, in effect, not. Her physical presence was with people, but not her mind. The result was that she wouldn’t come out of her world until she was ready to do so.

The result of all this is when lacking in confidence or when getting stressed out too much, Alex would lose the ability to cope with the simplest of things. It would make her want to ignore everything and the smallest of problems would develop into a huge worry in her mind leading to a lot of other things going wrong. This was particularly the case at work which is the main cause of stress in her life.

Sometimes she found it difficult to separate being generally angry at life from being angry with the people around her. She would think things which would then become real in her head such as convincing herself that people disliked and were out to get her.

Physical exercise really helped. Alex would not be happy unless she was on the go. Keeping still felt so uncomfortable and meaning her mind would flit from one thing to another. She would very easily become distracted and find it difficult to stay on a task which was particularly noticeable in a work environment. Physical exercise was an outlet through which she could vent her frustration. Another key lesson is avoiding situations cause unhappiness and conflict.

MJ: like Alex, I have usually had the feeling that, whilst people at work do not necessarily dislike me, most believe that I am not part of the team or, to use a former colleagues’ words, I am not “on-board”.

Certainly when I come under pressure or am personally attacked I have sometimes over-reacted. I have come to strongly appreciate that this is something that I have had to learn how to exercise self-control. Perhaps most pertinently, when I do experience a setback, it can remain in my mind for quite a while.

I have also had a staff member say to me that they don’t feel that “I am with them”. This, I believe, is definitely down to my AS and something that I have needed to manage: creating the impression among staff that I am not fully connecting can be quite damaging. Now I always focus fully in meetings, and when I am with people on them, to ensure that I am in their world not just mine and perceived to be fully attentive.

Related to this is always being on the go, flitting from thing to thing and becoming distracted. I too am very prone to this. Each day I set my stall out and work methodically through my tasks and objectives; I know that I very much need to be a starter-finisher. Finally, physical exercise, either during my lunch-break or out of work hours, has certainly assisted me also.

Chapter 11: “A Week in the Life of: Strategies for Maintaining Mental Health as an Aspie – Steve Jarvis

Steve, whom I know informally and respect, talks about the strategies/techniques available for coping with stress.

The text starts by discussing the benefits of planning such as preparing for a pending meeting in order to prevent stressful situations arising. Other useful techniques advocated include writing down how to respond to likely scenarios to gain more control about/over unpredictable situations.

Steve also mentions something that I have heard him refer to before: a self-help audio product called “Build Your Self-Esteem” by Glenn Harrold. This helps him to quickly get into a relaxed state as it does not rely on visualisation too much which he is not good at. The tape gets him to recite positive affirmations which assist in increasing confidence.

The point is then made as to how it is so important to address the issue of low self-esteem first as this provides the confidence. Talking to friends is the best way to release pent-up emotions. However, it is important to note that what works for one person may not automatically work for another. Try different things and see what works for you.

MJ: I can remember discussing preparations for events and meetings with Steve. I have certainty needed to address this area and have found it incredibly beneficial to do so. Finding out who is attending, what the agenda is, what I might to prepared to say and do can all prevent me from getting into difficult territory.

I too have used an audio product; in my case self-assessment tapes. These really helped me understand myself better and provided some incredibly useful tools that have assisted me in operating effectively as a manager. Decision-making was a key area and I have explored this previously on aspergermanagement.com at: http://www.aspergermanagement.com/decision-making-asperger-syndrome

Chapter 12: My Plastic Bubble: Dealing with Depression, Anxiety and Low Self-Confidence – Wendy Lim

Wendy talks about the fear and recognition of being different and the stress of not knowing how to behave without being treated negatively; of being simply accepted along with the impact of the environment. These are, I believe, highly relevant for someone with AS wanting to operate in a management role.

As a child Wendy was terrified of people; some more so than others and still finds people frightening. To her, everybody is alien. Some are friendly aliens and some not so nice, but everyone is potentially an enemy. As a result, she often feels she hasn’t got a clue how to speak to another human being.

Wendy imagined that there would be a time when she reached a certain age when she would start to feel “grown up”, but that time has never come. There are things that she would like to do but has never felt adult to do them. In addition, she always expects people to be angry with and berate her if she feels she does the slightest thing wrong. This has made it very difficult for her to assert herself with adult children.

However, she has also come to realize that on some level she has more power and control than she thought she has. Though at times she has felt like she has been living in a state of flight or fight, she has become accustomed to living with anxiety, despite the feeling of dread that can remain long after the original cause of the anxiety has passed.

She also makes the point that, although not lazy, there are times when she can only do something only when she is in the correct mental mode. For example, she can only clean the house early so gets up early to do so.

According to Wendy, self-esteem is different to self-confidence. The latter is knowing you can do it, whilst the former relates to self-image, how I perceive myself as a person and how I imagine other people see me. I have come to appreciate that damage is usually done by other people via their attitudes and reactions to us – not me.

She has also suffered from what is known as “selective muteness”. This becomes worse when she is under pressure to speak or feels overwhelmed by social demands. People have asked her: “why don’t you speak?”

MJ: like Wendy I have felt fear when dealing with some people in a work setting. These are usually aggressive types of managers; ones’ perhaps that I consciously feel that I am going to struggle to resonate, connect and communicate with.

To help overcome this I have tried to adopt a different stance when interacting with them, certainly initially. I can see how, looking back, my approach to some people has been distant or even hostile in outlook. This has affronted them and made them less pre-disposed to trying to interact with me.

Now, I reach out to people with whom I initially feel could be difficult for me. I always smile and, even if their initial reaction to me is cool, I persist in being open and friendly towards them. It usually works. If I encounter an aggressive or assertive style operator, I am assertive in my outlook towards them: I am bullish about any work situation or issue that we are both facing and try to come across as positive, assertive and certain that something can be done about it.

I sometimes also feel like Wendy that I have less power or “agency” than I actually do and this stems from being conscious of having AS. There are a number of areas where this may manifest itself: accepting unwarranted criticism or that I am automatically to blame for something, being insufficiently assertive in expressing my views or; not making career or management decisions that need to be made. I can also see looking back how, at times, I have not been sufficiently vocal in management meetings and too reticent in expressing my views – and unique insight, something I always now force myself to do.

Finally, appreciating that I need to structure my working practices; in particular to attempt important or difficult challenges only when I am prepared and in the right frame of mind has also been immensely advantageous.

Chapter 13: The Art of Being Content: Buddhism and Me – Chris Mitchell

Chris talks in his piece about how life can often seem unfair for a person with AS. He goes on to talk about how there are “programmes” that can assist in changing individual behaviour such as social skills training, but few (if any) are available to assist in coping with a perceived lack of justice.

Like me, Chris has found himself in many environments where individuals are fighting for position, often at the expense of others, including him. Like me, this has led him to experience feelings of insecurity, uncertainty and generally low self-esteem which, in turn, has led to personal conflict.

Chris has found solace in Buddhism, of which Dukkah is a concept: the frustration one experiences when the satisfaction emanating from a material good disappears. Instead, the spirit advocates looking at things in respect to you. For example, in a work context if other people are advancing more readily than you, don’t compare yourself with them; instead, look at your own situation and personal requirements and then take decisions that are appropriate for you.

Many of Chris’s mind abilities and the difficulties he experiences are Asperger related – flexibility of thought, recognising the reasoning of actions of others as well as his own state of mind. Addressing these issues however means that he can recognise the roots of his, at times, lower self-esteem and so deal with them better.

Development of mindfulness through the meditation that the Buddhist approach adopts has enabled him to be a person with Asperger syndrome, whilst also assisting him to be more aware and tolerant of his surroundings.

MJ: I have come across Chris’ before and reviewed his book on Asperger syndrome and Buddhism on aspergermanagement previously: http://www.aspergermanagement.com/aspergers-syndrome-and-mindfulness-tak… I found it very useful.

Personally, I am not religious or spiritual. I was though very interested in a Case Study that was written by Martin on Religion, Psychology and Asperger syndrome earlier this year: http://www.aspergermanagement.com/religion-spirituality-psychology-AS The main reason for this was the connection between religion and psychology as I have studied the latter and found it to be very relevant to understanding some of the issues that have affected my work as a manager with AS.

Like Chris, experiencing and confronting injustice in the workplace is for me a very difficult thing to come to terms with. Back-biting, putting other people down to protect someone’s position (which I have been a target of) and general unpleasantness are all things that are contrary to my AS and something which my logical mode of thinking and interpretation have not adequately prepared me for.

As religion is a subject that does interest me, I have read around the subject and different religious faiths quite a bit over the last few years. Considering and applying the main themes and principles have certainly eased my sense of injustice and its ability to cause internal discord.

Chapter 14: A Journey Looking for Answers about the Way I Am – Anthony Scalfani

Anthony talks about the benefits of having specialist Asperger support in the workplace. He has tried counsellors etc, but they weren’t much use as they lacked the specialist knowledge and understanding of Asperger syndrome that would enable them to advise and guide.

As well as discussing this area, he finishes the section by saying that it is also important for an individual with Asperger syndrome to self-help: to try and be positive a much as one can; to ask for help when needed and to try and observe ones’ surroundings more carefully to learn lessons from it.

MJ: this is another important section for anyone with Asperger working in a management or white-collar context. It was the lack of specialist support and advice that prompted me to write my book Managing with Asperger Syndrome (http://www.aspergermanagement.com/managing-asperger-syndrome) and develop my Transitions Programme in the University sector.

Though I have learnt immeasurable amounts of useful, relevant information from some highly capable managers and individuals throughout my working life, it is still difficult, I believe, for anyone without a basic understanding of what Asperger is to effectively advise and manage a person with AS. Sadly, at the moment, such specialist expertise is finite meaning that Anthony’s last point about self-assistance becomes even more important and relevant.

I think that the former situation will change slowly over time. As more becomes understood about what AS is, and what actions can be taken to ameliorate some of the challenges someone with Asperger has to face in a work context, the expertise will increasingly start to appear. As visitors to Aspergermanagement.com will know, I am currently a series of Question and Answer sessions with Barbara Bissonnette from ForwardMotion (www.forwardmotion.info) who provides some highly appropriate expertise in this area.

Chapter 15: A Label that Fits: Diagnoses, Self-Harm and Mental Health – Natasha Goldthorpe

The subject of seeking a diagnosis is, like disclosure in the workplace, both an important and highly individualised decision. From my own perspective I can say that discovering that I was affected by Asperger syndrome – albeit very mildly – was an important event in my life: it explained so much but, perhaps, more importantly, it provided the knowledge and insight that enabled me to make adjustments that proved hugely advantageous in my career.

Natasha argues for diagnosis. People cannot believe that she has Asperger syndrome: she is too sociable, can have conversations, sing in pubs, live independently and has a boyfriend… The reason why Natasha believes that she can do this is because of her diagnosis which has enabled her to make sense of her life and the world around her. She discovered – like I – her AS by chance through reading an article which provided clarity and enlightenment. As a result, she saw her whole life from a different perspective.

The research she subsequently did into AS gave her the insight into her past problems and the confidence to face the future armed with self-knowledge. The diagnosis also gave her a sense of self.

During periods of school holiday inactivity she would focus on her imperfections in her environment. She noticed she would become obsessive and compulsive without the busyness and structure of school to keep her occupied. Her moods would swing enormously and she was extra sensitive to her environment. Consequently, she gradually slipped behind a thick screen that separated her from everyone and everything else; she found she just could not connect.

She also became resistant and anxious about any form of transition. Her feelings of being an outsider detached her from the world she resided in which became more powerful than ever. As a result, she questioned herself deeply.

Since her diagnosis Natasha’s quality of life has improved dramatically. She accepts that it is always going to be challenging and so has to work hard on appearing “normal”. She has however become adept at this now so that it is no longer obvious to other people what she finds difficult or makes her anxious. However, doing so can still cause her extreme stress meaning that she can still regress into old, maladaptive responses if she doesn’t recognise what is happening. Sustaining a sociable persona can completely exhaust her meaning that she has to isolate herself at times in order to re-charge. Now, she takes valuable time out to avoid becoming drained and stress levels tipping over into mental and physical health problems. She also understands the sensory information and social situations that cause her to shut everything else out!

The key is not to force herself to fit in, to know when to say “that’s enough”. She acknowledges that she is always going to have high stress levels because of the environments she finds herself in and the pressures that she puts upon herself, but they are choices she can make meaning that she now thrives on the challenges that can make her feel alive.

Importantly, Natasha doesn’t look back with bitterness or regret anymore, but uses her experiences in the most positive way she can to support others with Asperger syndrome.

MJ: There is much in this that I can resonate with. I enjoy, and work best, in a work context that I know and which provides’ routine. Once I am comfortable in an environment, I start to excel and exploit the original, unique insight that the Asperger-related mode of thinking can deliver.

I also have come to appreciate that I need to face and deal with change. The work environment today inevitably involves transition. Understanding myself now as I do, and why change before was sometimes problematic, has enabled me to cope with it. I now expect change and am prepared – not least of all mentally.

I also know that I am going to face periods of stress and anxiety; indeed, as a manager I simply cannot avoid it. However, as mentioned before, I know that it is unlikely to last; that if I face the issue and work steadily away at it, it will regress and eventually disappear. I retain this knowledge always when I am under pressure.

Central to this also is not taking on too much prematurely and knowing when to say “that’s enough”. When I know what I am required to do and am on top of my job task, then the propensity to cope with stress recedes dramatically.

Like Natasha, I try not to look back at past experiences, some of which can be very difficult to face. The experience that I have accrued from the “school of hard knocks” has in some ways been my most beneficial coping mechanism.

Chapter 16: Through the Looking Glass into Lynette Land: Making Humour Work – Lynette Marshall

Lynette talks about a willingness to help and of people exploiting her vulnerable nature.

80% of her communication with friends is via jokes. A major reason she believes why people with AS become depressed is because of communication. Few people really understand those with Asperger and when a person with AS is trying to be polite and friendly other people can think that one is being rude. Against this, awareness of AS needs to be raised as for any interaction to take place at least two people need to be involved. However, it is quite normal for someone with AS to not understand what an NT person has said. As Lynette says, this is the fault of nobody, but if NTs could provide short, clear instructions and provide thinking time to respond, for example, it would help those with AS to develop social skills.

When a conversation or friendship fails between an NT and AS person, the latter can take it very personally and blame themselves which may lead to low self-esteem and depression. This leads to isolation as they don’t want to experience failure again. The problem is that the disability may not be obvious to others. NT’s need to listen to difficulties and explain things if they are not understood: explanations remove confusion.

Lynette also believe that for every difficulty that AS brings there is a positive perspective to it. For instance, obsessional thoughts are often thought of as intrusive if they revolve around a topic of interest. However, they can also form the basis of a career.

She is realistic about the difficulties that she faces, but tries to think positively and to have fun. Being realistic in this way ensures that she can get the support that she needs and doesn’t do things that she cannot achieve and which may lead to a loss of confidence. By accepting her difficulties, she can plan little steps towards achieving a goal. By taking things slowly she can progress and achieve and so gain confidence.

To decrease anxiety Lynette advocates that an individual with AS has to develop a coping strategy that is right for them. She is happiest when she is around people who understand AS and so don’t judge her. Humour helps to reduce her anxiety and stress levels. If she finds something difficult she will make a joke about it so that she can approach the matter in a calmer way. Speaking to Luke helps as he puts things into perspective for her; he shares her sense of humour.

MJ: I believe that humour does help in the workplace, but only where appropriate and used in the correct way. Being self-deprecating can defuse tensions and make you appear more “normal” and approachable. I once had a colleague at work who could reduce anything to a non-serious level and he certainly did not have any enemies.

Against that, I believe that I have had to use humour carefully. Jokes relating to personal issues such as religion, sexuality or gender are definitely out and I can see how, with hindsight, I have laughed at people in a way that they have found condescending.

Chapter 17: Mental Health and the Workplace: Dealing with Criticism, Coping with Stress and Taking Control of Your Environment – Dr Christopher Wilson

The final chapter looks at the impact of criticism on a person with AS.

As Dr Wilson presciently identifies, though it is difficult to understand what is meant as a minor criticism can lead to years of what is mental torture; the effects can be devastating.

The bullying that Dr Wilson was subject to at school was partly the result of not doing what was required to fit in. The school was sports mad and he didn’t like sport and unless you could talk about football you were largely excluded from the conversation. At lunchtime, everyone played football, even those that were no good at it; he stayed away.

The author was good at giving presentations and could express himself well in any conversation that was structured. He also had good knowledge many subjects and could also socialise in manageable chunks. It was when he was caught “off guard” in an interaction that his verbal skills sometimes suffered.

Self-confidence and low self-esteem have also been issues for him. He finds that he can be quite negative at times and that it is difficult to look on the bright side when things go wrong. He has also tended to brood a lot on his failures. Many of the problems have been work related.

Like me, Christopher does not take criticism well and even a minor “telling off” can affect him for days. When things do go wrong, he has great trouble telling how much he is in and whether his bosses are genuinely angry with him. However, usually problems are short in duration and after a week he bounces back and carries on.

Stress can also be an issue. Like me he likes to work slowly and at a steady pace to minimize errors. Timescales however do not always allow this and working at speed is never a pleasant experience for him. Consequently, he has had to develop some mechanisms to cope with stress.

1. Take Control of Your Environment: If the traffic heavy, take a different route home. If your workspace is untidy, tidy it up: disorder brings about procrastination which can cause chaos;

2. Expect the Unexpected: no matter how well you plan, something will always happen as people rarely behave exactly as you’d want them to. Consequently, adapt routines to meet the changing needs of others, just as they will have to adapt to you. A flat refusal to compromise will not be of benefit in your job. Having AS means there will be things that you feel you will HAVE to do on a given day. However, you do have latitude in how/the order you do them. A sudden change in routine need not be negative and may lead to a new, beneficial experience or opportunity for growth. If thought through, a routine can usually be adapted to with minimal disruption. Being able to occasionally “expect the unexpected” can be a beneficial life skill;

3. Positive Thinking: this can be hard! Self-talk emanates from logic and reason; it can also arise from misconceptions created because of lack of information. If the thoughts running through your head are largely negative, your outlook on life is likely to be pessimistic and vice-versa. However, with hindsight what you have been worrying about is not as serious as you thought;

4. Having someone to talk to is very important. You may frequently worry over a minor problem until it becomes a big one and so talking to someone about it helps to put it in perspective by thinking logically about the problem. The type of person you should talk to will vary depending on the problem;

5. Avoid personalising everything and taking responsibility for everything that goes wrong. Try to recognise the role of other factors and people when things go awry and that sometimes things go wrong when nobody is to blame;

6. Avoid “hot button” topics; ones that you have strong feelings about;

7. Consider what is important to you. If you feel that you are failing at something and that is causing you stress, question whether it is something that is important;

8. Get Out of the House [work]: have an activity that can take you away from your problems, if only for a while;

9. Know Your Strengths and Weaknesses: people are not generally good at objectively judging themselves. Anxious people may overstate their weaknesses and the negative outcomes of any situation. Building up a realistic picture of your strengths and weaknesses is important to help you understand where the problems lie and help build up your confidence in areas where you are weak. There are several ways to do this:

a) Life experience: don’t dwell on failures’
b) Objective appraisal: ask your boss for constructive feedback to reduce unrealistic concerns and boost confidence and identify areas for improvement;
c) Peer observation: your successes and failures are your own. However, occasionally compare yourself to others in comparable situations.

10. Accept the Things You Cannot Change: some sources of stress are unavoidable. Dr Wilson believes that his AS means he will make some mistakes that others won’t and that he probably always will. Accept stressful things as they are and do not rail against a situation that you cannot change. Certain things in life are beyond our control, especially the behaviour of other people. Instead focus on the things that you can control, such as the way you react to others. As Christopher, I believe, rightly says, the most important thing is to learn to forgive – both yourself and others.

Aspies on Mental Health is, for me, a “dip in, dip out” book. I’ve read it a couple of times and have always seen something of value the second time around. Though it is not written in the main for those with Asperger and the working environment, all the lessons are valid and equally applicable.

Aspies on Mental Health: Speaking for Ourselves, Edited by Luke Beardon and Dean Worton
ISBN: 978-1-84905-152-1
Jessica Kingsley Publishers www.jkp.com

Managing with Asperger Syndrome