Tag: common sense

Did we just assume that icon’s gender?

Did we just assume that icon’s gender?

In a mind-boggling bid to reduce subconscious gender-bias in Victoria, lobby group Committee for Melbourne announced plans to pursue a 1:1 ratio of male and female icons at pedestrian crossings. A trial has been approved by VicRoads and the first lights have been changed in Melbourne already.  So far the costs of changing fittings have been absorbed by a local electrical company. Meaning, thankfully, the tax payer isn’t funding this madness.

Yes, I think it’s utterly mad. Not because I am against gender equality–far from it. In addition to being a rather pointless exercise that will likely have no effect on the public whatsoever, I feel that this is a step backward for gender equality.

Firstly, the icon presents as a woman because it wears a skirt. Forget for a moment that some poor person had to try (and failed) to design a skirt-wearing icon that didn’t look like it had broken legs. Just… try to forget that while your brain screams about how the leg shouldn’t be going that way–ohgod it looks painful! Forget it. Forget!

This isn’t some back-water conservative town–this is Melbourne, so why do we have to put a skirt on it to call the icon a woman?

Because that’s what we’ve always used to denote a woman?

Sure, but that doesn’t make it right to perpetuate the skirt-wearing female icon in a state that considers itself to be progressive, in 2017.

Women wear pants too, it’s one of the wonderful things about being liberated and equal to men. We probably already have a 1:1 ratio of male to female pedestrian crossing icons. Did anyone ask them? Did we just assume the gender of all those icons?

It’s a step backwards for complete gender equality, too. Adding a skirt to an icon represents nothing more than a clothing choice in a progressive society where gender barriers and bias are truly broken down.

There are more gender expressions than ‘male’ and ‘female’, there are more ways to physically represent those genders than there are stars in the sky–is every Victorian going to get their own pedestrian icon carefully designed to represent their gender?

I would argue that the addition of a skirt only adds more gender bias, not less. It reinforces the idea of a binary gender system in a very destructive way. It reinforces the concept of a woman as some skirt-wearing broken-legged being, a particular presentation of a woman that we have tried to get away from!

A pedestrian crossing icon is just that. If it means so much to reduce subconscious gender-bias by changing the street fixtures, take away the icon altogether. Make it a pair of genderless legs! It doesn’t actually matter.

What matters is that we approach equality for all, not just for the traditionally accepted models of gender.

Otherwise, what’s the point?

Photo: Twitter / Nine News

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What causes autism? Some theories.

What causes autism? Some theories.

Debate over what causes autism, and how to prevent it from occurring, remains inconclusive. Theories range from biological factors, to medical interference, and even to how a child was raised in early life.

The vaccine myth.

The theory that vaccines cause autism is unfortunately popular.The article published by Andrew Wakefield in 1998, which suggested the Measles, Mumps, Rubella vaccine (MMR) was responsible for behaviour regression and developmental disorder, was repeatedly refuted and eventually retracted in 2010.

The vaccine theory relied on two factors: one, that children often displayed autistic symptoms around the same time as receiving the MMR vaccine; and two, that autism had become ‘epidemic’ as vaccination became common practice in society. The more likely reason for the surge in autism diagnoses is a better understanding of the condition, changes to diagnostic practices and increased awareness–particularly among educators.

That autistic symptoms arise in the same developmental period as the second dose of the MMR vaccine (usually around the age of 4) is purely coincidental.

Even if the vaccine theory was correct, and I don’t believe it is, I fail to understand the logic of refusing to vaccinate children to decrease the risk of developmental disorder. Autism isn’t exactly a fun bag of kittens every day, but it is perfectly possible to live a long and happy life as an autistic person. Even those requiring extreme care are capable of being happy and healthy people.

Refusal to vaccinate increases the risk of contracting avoidable (and deadly) disease, both to the unvaccinated child and those who are unable to be vaccinated for medical reasons. It just doesn’t make sense to me.

Vitamin D deficiency.

This one is interesting, because I have extremely low levels of Vitamin D. I know, I know–I should go outside from time to time.. but maybe that’s not the only factor? I take supplements daily, which I find gives me the energy boost I’m often lacking.

Women who are deficient in Vitamin D during pregnancy are more likely to give birth to a child with autistic behaviours.

Inability to properly absorb and process Vitamin D may also be one of the many genetic factors that contributes to an autistic profile. Deficiency in Vitamin D may not be a cause, but a symptom–and perhaps lead us to a genetic marker as we build a greater understanding of how autism occurs.

Genetic factors.

This is the theory that makes the most sense, both in logic and in my own family experience. Autism is a condition of particular traits, that by their combination and intensity in a single person cause that person to diverge from what is known as ‘neurotypical’ (NT). You could think of this combination as a recipe, almost.

In most cases, and definitely in mine, you can spot autistic traits across the family of a diagnosed person. While the behaviours may be similar, they may not have the same intensity, obsessiveness, or rigidity of the autistic person–but they’re certainly there. Some in the family may have an autistic trait or two that is extremely intense—but not any others.

These traits are spread among parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents and beyond. When enough intense traits are passed down to a single person,  that person becomes diagnosably autistic.

This also explains why many people feel everyone is ‘a little autistic’, which is in some views true–and others false. Milder examples of autistic behaviours are common among the general population.However, while an ‘allistic’ (non-autistic) person may understand elements of a behaviour, they are less able to understand how multiple intense traits affect an autistic mind.

So you may think of autism as caused by the right mix of ingredients passed to an individual.

Interestingly, my genetic profile is significantly different to those of my undiagnosed siblings. I am the only right-handed child, the only one with grey eyes (the others are brown), and of us four I have the shorter, thinner-boned build. These genetic differences between me and my three siblings hint at my getting a number of recessive genes, some of which may have been autistic markers.

Brain compensation theory.

This does fall in with genetics as well, but an interesting study on autistic children and their non-affected siblings discovered that unaffected siblings also have a similar neurological signature to their autistic sibling.

Decoded, that means that the structures of the brain used to process particular information have a similar decreased ability as compared to children without an autistic sibling. However, unlike both their autistic sibling and their typically developing peers, unaffected siblings showed activity in other areas of the brain.

That suggests that unaffected siblings have created ‘other’ pathways through the brain to achieve neurotypical behaviours. I love this, because it shows just how adaptable the brain is. It also firms up the nature of autism as genetic, and explains how siblings can exhibit similar traits to their autistic sibling but not at the same intensity. Some compensatory structures may not be as complete as others, meaning that the trait will be more present in that sibling.

I find this especially interesting, as my sister is highly sensitive to tags and seams in her clothing. Far more than I am! That sensory sensitivity may be a trait that her brain has not fully countered.

Nurture and autism.

I’ll talk a little about this, because I think it’s relevant. Autistic behaviours can be adjusted over time, especially among those in the Aspergers category. I believe that autistic people are capable of building their own compensatory structures in the brain. We need to find our own way to achieve stability. This doesn’t mean a cure–simply working with and around our weaker points for a solution that suits us.

Early intervention and parenting methods are critical here, which is where I feel extremely lucky. Though I didn’t know I was autistic until a few months ago, my parents were not the sort to give in to picky eating habits. You ate what was on the table, or made your own food. I believe the firmness of that rule is one of the primary reasons why there are so few foods I don’t eat–I was never able to avoid anything long enough that it tasted wrong/unpleasant.

As an adult, I allow myself to not eat the things that really do bother me: pork, any meat with bones still in it, any meat that still resembles the animal it used to be, celery, and zombie toes broad beans. The list of things I won’t eat is actually quite small. I will pick around bones, but I really don’t like it. I’ll also eat mashed potato, though the texture bothers me most times.

I believe my lack of serious food aversions is mostly due to being encouraged to try a wide variety of foods as a kid, and also my curiosity regarding taste. New foods and drinks intrigue me, so I have to try things at least once! Or perhaps, it was simply never a severe factor for me.

We were also raised in a very structured and supportive environment, and the only real upsets I can recall having usually involved things like moving house, moving school, and other unavoidable moments of change. For the most part, my family life synched well with the parts of my autism that liked things to be a certain way, and for things to happen in a way that was consistent and predictable.

We went to school through the week, to bed at a particular time (even when I was in my last years of high school, I had a bed time. I hated it, but looking back it was another part to the structure of my day that I could rely on), there was often sports on Saturday morning, and during the football season we would generally catch up with family friends to watch the game and eat together.

So I was lucky in a lot of ways, that my family created an environment that curtailed some of the more annoying aspects of autism, while providing the structure I needed to feel secure. Though at the time, it was simply how our family operated–not any concession for an autistic mind.

I give in to it more as an adult, especially with food and clothing. I buy my own, so if I find that I’ve purchased a shirt that is uncomfortable and distracting to wear–it’s my own loss if I never wear it. The same goes for food. Clothes get rotated to the back of my wardrobe and eventually donated to charity. Some are too itchy, some feel too restricting, and some just make me irritable and I can’t articulate why. I did get myself to wear skinny jeans, though I prefer not to–and I still won’t wear shorts. I don’t even know why I won’t wear shorts, I just hate them.

I can make these choices as an adult, because I have been through the process of attempting, tolerating, and know for myself if it’s worth persisting. I also know I can work around things, like eating all the peas first when someone mixes them with the marvel that is corn (why do people ruin corn like that?). I’m in a space where I can do things in my particular way, and so long as it doesn’t hamper my ability to get things done, there’s nothing wrong with that.

I’ve rambled a lot and gone way off point–each autistic person’s ability to adapt and build compensatory structures and strategies will depend on the severity of the symptom, awareness of the individual in working toward the goal, and the age of the person. It can be done, though, it’s up to the individual to decide whether there is value in being able to eat a food, tolerate a situation, or wear an item of clothing. Sometimes the level of work to get to a point of tolerance isn’t justified for the outcome, or the time and number of exposures it would take to achieve the goal (remembering that each exposure will cause some level of distress) isn’t worth it. While it’s definitely ‘possible’, it may only be after thousands of exposures and unknown distress.

Are there any other theories you’ve heard regarding causes of autism? I’d love to research them!

 

My diagnosis, and how it makes sense.

My diagnosis, and how it makes sense.

It’s like someone is in my face yelling at me in German. I can kind of grasp if they’re happy or sad, but I don’t speak the language enough to truly understand what is being said.

A few months ago I began a process that would ultimately change the way I view myself, and my place in the world. In many ways, I’m still trying to process what it means to me–and the conflict of whether to disclose this discovery to my wider world.

I have chosen to publicly disclose, and to do so here to anyone with interest in the subject. I do so in the understanding that there is a great deal of misconceptions regarding the topic, and it is my hope that through this disclosure I am able to create better understanding of my experience. This blog contains only what I know to be true of myself. There are as many presentations of the condition as there are people who experience it.

This is my experience as an autistic woman.

 

Say what?

Yes, you read that correctly. I have been assessed as presenting with enough significant traits of Aspergers Syndrome to satisfy a formal diagnosis. I don’t much like the word ‘Aspergers’–not so much for the Sheldon Cooper connotation, more I just don’t like the combination of letters in it.

One of the key misconceptions about those with Aspergers is that they are fundamentally more capable than someone defined as simply ‘Autistic’. In the DSM-5, the leading diagnostic manual for mental conditions, ‘Aspergers’ has been removed as an independent diagnosis. I like that this opens the door to a much broader understanding of ‘Autism’, the capabilities and weaknesses of those who experience it.

 

So–are you ‘high’ or ‘low’ functioning?

This is another reason why removal of the ‘Aspergers’ label is important. The idea that some autistic people are more intelligent, more capable, and more useful to society is dangerous. It leads us to expect that those defined as ‘high’ functioning should be able to adapt to the neurotypical world and survive without any compensatory methods. On the other end, it allows us to believe that ‘low’ functioning persons have diminished value due to their autism.

This is especially true of those who are ‘non-verbal’. That is, someone who is functionally able to speak–but experiences an autism-related block that prevents them from conversing in a ‘normal’ manner. Their inability to speak has no relation to their intelligence or what they can contribute to the world. Many are very talented writers and express themselves through text.

Autism is not fundamentally an intellectual disability, though it can be for some. Therefore, those with autism should be approached and classified according to our unique strengths and weaknesses. Just like anyone else.

I am neither high, nor low functioning. I am a person with an autistic brain.

 

Then… what is autism?

Autism is a different operating system. It’s a way of thinking that is atypical compared to the general population. It is the experience of looking at the world, and knowing you see it differently to everyone else on the same bus.

In practical terms, autism is a profile of intense strengths and crippling weaknesses. What those strengths and weaknesses are varies across individuals. Although everyone on earth has strengths and weaknesses, those with autism experience a much greater gap between what they are good at, and what they’re not so good at.

For example, a ‘neurotypical’ (someone with a brain that functions the same way as most) or ‘allistic’ (someone who is not autistic) person may be ‘good’ at running and ‘bad’ at cooking. An autistic person with those same traits would be ‘amazing’ at running and ‘horrendous’ at cooking. The difference in skill (or lack of) is much more pronounced in someone with autism.

For me, I am excellent at writing. This is my primary method of communication and of untangling my own thoughts. I’m great with music–I have a natural sense of rhythm and ability to play instruments with deep expression. I have mostly untapped artistic talent. I am wonderful at conducting deep analysis, I can research a subject thoroughly and output text that allows others to grasp the concept. I can argue almost any point convincingly–if I can do it in writing. I can teach myself to do things. I find something to get excited about on almost any topic. Don’t believe me? I can even get passionate about cricket. I am loyal, enthusiastic, and I love streamlining processes and finding ways to make things more efficient.

I sound pretty wonderful, huh? Here are some weaknesses.

I am downright shocking at communicating directly with people. I tire out fast and become unreasonably emotional when I’ve gone past my ‘limit’. I need extreme amounts of solitude to recover. I don’t deal with light or noise particularly well. My ‘processing’ speed is much slower than the average person–I often don’t comprehend what you’ve said until a few seconds after you’ve spoken. I can’t deal with too much verbal information. I need time to sit back and make plans for things. I don’t handle plans changing. I don’t like situations that are vague. Often, I take instructions too literally or fail to consider beyond the task that was initially asked. I almost always miss the ‘hidden’ meanings in conversations. I am naive, overly trusting, and very… very easily hurt.

 

How much of that is autism, and how much is just… you?

Some traits are more likely to present in autistic people, but for the most part, these are things that are experienced by most people. It’s the combination and intensity of these traits that defines whether a person is autistic or not. It’s also in the reactions to these traits where the clues to autism lie.

All of the things listed there as strengths are things I am exceptionally good at. All of those weaknesses have the capacity to (and have) interfere with how I relate to others and the world around me.

So let’s look at some of the traits in detail, and I’ll explain what I mean.

 

Obsessions and special interests

When someone says ‘Aspergers’, most people think of an uptight person who is fanatic about one or two topics. Thanks to The Big Bang Theory, they most often think of Sheldon Cooper. This is most often true of persons with autism.

My interests were simple. I love stories. I still love stories. I will go to the ends of the earth for a good story.

This began my obsession with books (and collecting books) and writing. I picked up the ability to read very early in life, well before I started school (thanks to excellent parents!). My obsession with words and letters is a sort of sub-interest to this, and it’s all sort of branched out into a broader love of linguistics, communication, and the history of the English language. It fascinates me. But it all started with stories.

This love of stories has also evolved into a love of TV, movies and video games. The creation of fiction is one of the most beautifully human things we have in our world. Through it we can imagine worlds beyond our immediate reality, glimpse into the future and revel in the past. We can escape where we are, imagine things greater, and even brainstorm solutions for problems that don’t yet exist. Writing is a form of pure magic.

Music was another early obsession. The first ‘favourite song’ I remember was  Lover [You Don’t Treat Me No Good No More] by Sonia Dada. I loved the deep vocal tones and the beat. The child-friendly tunes of Peter Coombe played constantly through early life, and my first favourite movie was Disney’s Fantasia. Music is a language of its own that captures stories both explicitly and imagined in the listener’s mind. On my worst days, music is a soothing force that brings me back down.

My third and most obvious obsession as a child was cats. I used to be able to list breeds and their  characteristics. I had books and toys and a collection of ornaments–if ever I rattled on about something (as ‘Aspergers’ is known for) it was about one of these topics.

These interests evolved and shifted over the years. I’m fascinated by true crime now, with psychology and technology. I like to know what features new gadgets have, how new apps can change the way we do things, and what goes through someone’s mind when they commit a crime.

I am also interested in what interests other people. I have a deep desire to understand what draws people to one topic or another, and thanks to my ability to find something of interest about almost any topic, I’ve discovered love for subjects that are outside of my general ‘sphere’ of interest. Much of this was sport related, AFL and cricket, but also crafting tidbits and politics.

 

Why research something you’re not really interested in?

Good question. That leads back to another trait: I struggle to make general conversation with people around me if I am not adequately prepared to do so.

It started as a means of ‘having something to say’. I feel a strong sense of disconnection even around people I’ve known a long time, and particularly those with whom I don’t share a common interest. Talking about my own interests is generally not advised–I find they’re very specific to me and not of great interest to other people. Plus, if you get me started I’m rather hard to stop.

I also don’t see much value in small talk. It was a part of the ‘cashier’ routine that I had to do for work, which I think cheapened it even more. In the job it became reflexive and ingenuine. People talk too much as it is, I don’t see any need to waste words about the weather when I could be making a proper and meaningful connection with the people who matter.

So I began researching tidbits of information that fell into their interests. Facebook makes this incredibly easy! Facebook is literally a feed of things other people are interested in, articles you can read and videos you can share. This is one of my best compensatory methods and is invaluable in helping me to begin and carry conversations.

 

Do you have emotions?

That’s another misunderstood trait. Autistic people often have trouble processing or reading emotions from other people, and also in expressing the emotions they feel. That’s not the same as not having emotions.

I feel the state of others around me keenly. It’s like a thick fog–I can’t avoid it. This ‘empath’ trait is sought after and is linked to emotional intelligence. Except in my case (and in the case of other empathically sensitive autistic people), although I’m getting the information–there’s not much I can do with it. I don’t understand it.

I understand the basics of it. Good emotion, bad emotion. Beyond that, I’m lost. It’s like someone is in my face yelling at me in German. I can kind of grasp if they’re happy or sad, but I don’t speak the language enough to truly understand what is being said. All I know is it’s right in my face and it’s damn uncomfortable. When others around me are stressed or upset, I begin to get stressed and upset because of the tension, and not knowing how to release or break it.

Like many autistic people, I don’t read faces, tone, or situations well. So all of that information is just confusing and makes it hard to cope. There’s a constant analysis going on in the back of my brain, trying to discover the meaning as it unfolds. This is a skill that is acquired over time and experience, and while I’ve got better at it over the years, it’s still exhausting and far less accurate than that ‘intuitive’ understanding that allistic/neurotypical people have.

As for my own emotions? They’re strong. Incredibly so. There are two forces here that make it hard for others to understand my emotive state, and one is simply that I am terrible at making the right face at the right time.

I am a severe sufferer of ‘resting bitch face’. Often I have to consciously change my expression to reflect happiness or sadness, and this I do solely for the sake of not looking ‘weird’. Left to my own devices, my face would rarely shift. The same is true of inflection in my voice, I have to remember to speak in a way that ‘matches’ how I should be feeling.

The second is practice at stillness. This is an unrelated and learned skill. When I was bullied in early school years, the first advice I got was to never let them see me cry. I went far beyond that and taught myself a poker face that (combined with inborn reduced expression) I presented to the entire world.

There are days where I am incredibly expressive. I express myself outside of facial expressions, too–I run and jump and spin and talk a million miles an hour. These are the days when I am most myself, and most comfortable being who I am. When I am being ‘weird’ I don’t have to be ‘still’ and I can let go.

I struggle with letting go a lot. A lot. Experience tells me that if you act outside of what is expected, only bad things will happen.

 

How do you handle conversation?

To be honest? Not well. Unless it’s on a topic that I know a lot about, or have researched, I struggle. My slower processing speed can make it very hard to keep up with the pace of a conversation, and before I say anything, it needs to be formed, checked for appropriateness, and rehearsed in my head before it leaves my lips.

If I don’t go through that process–you never quite know what I’ll say. I can spurt out irrelevant or even offensive things without meaning to. I have to actually think quite hard about what is okay to say in front of the audience I’ve got, and to word it in a way that can’t be misconstrued. When you don’t really understand the extra connotations that others spot in terms of word choice, facial expression and tone of voice (remembering that mine does not flow naturally!) it becomes very important to watch what you say.

There are so many social clues and contexts and hidden meanings that I just… don’t comprehend. It’s only recently that I learned that commenting on how nice someone’s food looks/smells is the same as asking for some. I didn’t know that–and I would often compliment my housemate’s cooking based on the sight and smell. Not in the slightest did I expect that I should be offered some. I just wanted to say something nice based on an observation. That food did smell good!

In short, any of those more subtle aspects of interaction I need to learn the same way as I learned to tie my shoelaces: with practice and experience.

Starting conversations is probably the hardest for me, especially if they’re about myself. Those of you who primarily encounter me through this blog and other online channels might think that’s absurd. All I do here is talk about myself!

In person, it’s a very different story. First, it’s much easier to start a conversation that is light hearted and that you know will be well recieved by your conversation partner. So if I start conversations, it’s more likely going to revolve around their interests.

The second thing you need to understand, is that I’m driven by a deep and unshakeable fear of rejection. I’ve had this constant knowledge all my life that I am somehow different, that I don’t function in the same ways as other people, and for the most part I’ve been deathly afraid of demonstrating that difference. I fear that when people come to know me as I see me, they will see ‘that’ thing that makes me ‘other’ and that will provide enough reason for them to turn away.

I’ve always wanted to be out of the spotlight, away from scrutiny, scared that any minute I will be discovered. It’s felt a lot as if I’m some sort of alien trying to masquerade as a human, trying to learn their ways and fit in but never quite managing it. Fearing every time I slip up and show myself that I’ll be hunted down and outcast once and for all.

That’s a pretty heavy belief to have when you’re seven or eight years old, yet it’s one of the oldest ones I have. I don’t remember ever feeling any other way. I didn’t believe I had a right to be myself, because what I was was obviously ‘wrong’ and didn’t fit here.

The people I struggle to talk to most are the ones in my physical realm. Online is online. Yes–I have amazing friends that I hold in very high esteem and my life would not be the same without them. But even so, if, when I reveal my true self to them, they shun me?

I can turn them off. The internet is full of block and delete buttons. The emotional cost will still be high, but I won’t run the risk of seeing them down the street. They won’t be at family gatherings. I can tell them anything I like with that safety net.

I also get to speak with them using a method that allows me the most clarity: via text. I very rarely speak the more difficult things. When I do, the right words never seem to fit in my mouth, or I sway the conversation to make light of things and change the meaning entirely. Spoken conversations never go the way they should. I always end up saying something I didn’t mean, or not explaining things well enough and the whole exercise ends up being pointless.

This blog allows me a medium. It’s open and visible to people in my physical and online realms alike. These are my words as I wish I could speak them, explaining myself in the way I’ve always wanted to–and far more powerfully now that I have some understanding of why I am the way I am.

 

What do you mean ‘slow processing speed’? You’re smart, right?

For a given value of ‘smart’, yes. I’m great at navigating photoshop, but at this point in my life I can’t drive. People far less switched on than me can drive, so why can’t I? That’s the trouble with the ‘smart’ label. It assumes that smart in one thing is smart in all things. I am definitely not. No one is.

I have definite intellectual strengths. However, it can take me a little longer to get there. How fast or slow you process things has nothing to do with intelligence.

It’s a bit like RAM in a computer. If the average person has 16GB of RAM, I’m probably running on 12GB. Therefore, I am less efficient in how I deal with things around me. My extreme sensitivity also means that a lot of that ‘processing power’ is taken up by interpreting information from external sources. So there’s very little left to deal with the immediate situation.

This is most obvious in conversation. I have particular trouble with ‘verbal information dumping’, or basically when someone gives me a lot of instructions or ideas in a single conversation. In transferring that information from the short term (or RAM) to long term (HDD, haha!) memory, there’s not always enough RAM/short term memory to store the information… and pieces get lost.

Thankfully, there’s also a weird ‘transitional’ memory that I’ve noted, which is kind of like a backup for the RAM/short term. It doesn’t catch everything, but often if it’s been a long day full of information or if I’ve been given a lot of options regarding something, during my next quiet moment I’ll take some time to go through all of the concepts that were presented and process them properly.

This is generally what I’m doing while staring at the TV, playing video games, or scrolling through Facebook. I’m going back through the day and consolidating my memory.

 

What do you mean ‘extreme sensitivity’?

My sensitivity to almost everything is perhaps the least known fact about me. Even to myself, I didn’t realise what the source of discomfort was until it was pointed out.

I don’t tune things out well. That dripping tap? The radio across the road? That bird that hasn’t stopped for the last hour? I hear each instance as keenly as I heard the first. I have exceptional hearing, and the same goes for my sight and smell. But as I lack the ability to subconsciously tune out background sensations, my attention is constantly split between what is immediate and what is not.

I’m sitting at my desk right now and I’m hearing that bird, the fan in my computer, my fingers on the keys, that weird sound of the sky at night, cars move up and doors open, the neighbours in their pool, the saliva in my mouth. All of these have equal sized pieces of my attention.

I can feel my foot pressed against the chair, my hair prickling at the back of my scalp, sweat drying on my forehead and how itchy my nose is (my nose is always so annoyingly itchy!), my chest aching from a breath I was holding, my one roll of fat resting comfortably in my shirt, my bra straps itching across my shoulder blades, my trousers stuck to my leg with the heat. I can feel how heavy I am and how my hands shake when they come to rest. Again, none of these are ever tuned out. I am always this aware.

My vision is even more intense. I’m highly sensitive to bright light, and the fluourescent bulb above is reflecting off the white walls and table and box in front of me, a sharp contrast to the black computer screen, keyboard and tower. The black lines are wiggling and jumping around, creating after images in green and purple. The text on the screen is wiggling about like it does. How I ever learned to read, let alone love doing so, is actually a miracle. The granular colours of visual snow are drifting about, as usual. I’ve never known anything different. I’m now aware of how much it drains me, and how important sunglasses are.

Often it feels to me like my skin has been peeled  away, leaving every nerve raw and exposed. Every sound is a booming cacophony, every touch is a hot knife. It drains and builds, reducing my tolerance to anything more until I literally can’t handle anything more. In those moments I need to escape. I need to drastically reduce the amount of sensory information coming in, or I will go into meltdown.

 

Meltdown? You have meltdowns?

Yes. That is the actual term for what I call ‘episodes’. It’s a release, an expression of being so incredibly overwhelmed that literally nothing more can be tolerated.

Mild meltdowns are shaking and crying, but they go far more extreme. Screaming into pillows and raking my nails up and down my skin, trying to distract myself from a weird feeling that I can only describe as thrashing around inside my skin. As if I can feel my bones shift violently about inside me, trying to get out. I can’t catch my thoughts in a meltdown, they’re fragmented and swirling in a hurricane. There’s lightning snapping at the synapses in my brain, making me think things I don’t want to think.

I am lucky, very lucky, that at the same time I often go into a sort of ‘paralysis’. I freeze and feel myself fighting under my skin, but come to no real physical harm. The desire for violent acts is there, I want to punch walls and kick glass and run out on the road and scream at cars–but I can’t, and I don’t. I don’t move until rational thought comes back to remind me how dumb those thoughts are.

Frustration is the strongest feeling. Frustration that I can’t control it. Frustration that I didn’t know where it came from. Frustration that this is a thing that doesn’t seem to happen to other people, and I must be broken for it to happen to me so frequently.

I experience some form of meltdown roughly once a week. A bad week will have them once or twice a day, some of them being very severe. The experience takes a huge toll on my energy and a long recovery time. Exhaustion also adds to the underlying stress that leaves me prone to meltdowns, so if one severe one occurs, more usually follow.

There’s no cure for this. No way to control it, but to observe how I’m reacting to the situation I’m in, and take steps to minimise overstimulation where I need to. It usually means stepping away in social situations, saying ‘no’ when I want to say ‘yes’, and generally avoiding too much sound and light than I can handle. That reduces the frequency.

They will always happen. That’s simply how it is.

 

Uhh… violent acts? That doesn’t sound fun.

It’s not. It’s really not.

Like many autistic people, I experience emotions at an extreme level. I react to situations in a very intense way that I don’t fully understand. There’s no real language to explain those moments. I know that I’m feeling something highly complex, and often there’s a strong desire to communicate what I’m feeling–but I’m left without the tools to do so.

One method of expressing this frustrating pain is to convert that feeling into a physical object, something that others can see and comprehend. It is in the world, it’s real, it’s not a figment of my imagination. Depending on my state of mind, the impulses range from scratching my skin to the above-mentioned running on the road.

I need to underline here that never in the almost-thirty years of having these types of thoughts have I acted on them any further than to scratch my arms and legs. Nor will I ever go beyond that. So much meaning is lost in the conversion from emotional to physical that it literally makes no sense to do so, and above all else, I am a highly logical being.

I have a ‘voice’ (not a real voice, but I often consider it a separate entity) that pipes up when intrusive thoughts jump their way into my brain. My more rational self poking holes into the violent suggestions that flash up like annoying pop-up advertisements.

The best example of this rational voice is from the day that the most bizarre intrusive thought suggested that I should take the office scissors and cut both my hands off at the wrists. I was having a bad day and feeling under a lot of pressure, things kept changing every other minute, and I was well beyond my limit.

Rational voice says: ‘Okay, so you very painfully cut through the bone of one hand with blunt office scissors… exactly how do you plan to cut the other hand off? You can’t use scissors with a bloodied stump, dickhead.’

I laughed. That’s often the case. Either rational voice points out how illogical/messy/plain dumb an idea is, or the gaps in the impulse’s logic are too hilarious. Either way, there has never been a chance of action on any of these more extreme thoughts. Nor will there ever be.

 

I bet you don’t like things changing around. Sheldon Cooper doesn’t!

I sure don’t. Some of Sheldon Cooper’s autism characteristics are ones that I do share. Rigid thinking and an inflexible sense of order are one.

I start my day with a sort of mental plan, a sequence of activities that will get me from waking and to the end of the day. I tell myself every morning that although I have this road map for the day, things will come up and I will need to adjust as necessary.

Haaaaaahahhaa. If only it worked that simply!

I get very frustrated with late changes to my plan. I’m quite okay with someone texting me 4-5 hours out from doing something that they’re now unable to, as that gives me enough time to process this information and adjust the plan accordingly. Texting me ten minutes before leaves me with a sudden gap in my mental schedule, and a sense of loss at how to fill it.

The same happens with being given activities to do. I need time to process that something must be added to my mental schedule, and time to figure out how I will best approach the task. Starting something the minute I’ve found out I need to do it is incredibly uncomfortable. It fills me with that unprepared sense of anxiety, not unlike the worry that you left the hair straightener on while you went shopping. I can do the task through it, but at the cost of that anxiety pushing me closer toward a meltdown. At the same time, the distraction caused by that unsettled feeling means I may not do the task as well as I normally might. I wasn’t prepared for this, I didn’t go in with a plan, and this is the result.

You might think it doesn’t matter, that not all tasks need a plan and approach–that I should just relax and do things regardless. In that case, you’re missing the point. Taking the time to mentally slot the task into my sense of order is how I am able to relax. I have a very defined system for how I go about the world, and the majority of it involves a period of consideration prior to action.

I even think for several minutes about what path I will take through the house before getting up to go to the toilet.

I don’t think there’s a single person I haven’t frustrated with this particular aspect of myself. Just ask my poor English teachers, who watched me sit in front of a blank page for hours before beginning to write!

 

So what is your ‘sense of order’?

Everything and everyone has a place and a way of being that I have come to expect. Changes to that can unsettle me very fast. One of my first major breakdowns spiralled from my family moving home–and I didn’t even live there at the time.

I get very attached to places and objects. Mum had the same microwave for so many years that their current one still looks wrong to me. I get upset when my favourite foods are discontinued. I hate when people change cars. Our local radio stations changed their names just the other week and I am not okay with it.

I love the idea of holidays, but the reality actually sucks. Everything is out of place at once. Christmas is a chaotic rollercoaster of visitors and nothing being the way it usually is. As much as I love the season and having people around, it’s not the norm and it becomes unreasonably stressful. During special events and holidays, I need far more time to recover than in an average week–purely because I have to keep re-creating my mental schedule around the chaos.

 

Do you understand sarcasm?

Another stereotype, and one that has a good real basis. I understand sarcasm from people I know exceptionally well. Sometimes. Not all the time. I understand sarcasm when it is hyperbolic and accompanied by a distiguishable ‘sarcasm’ tone of voice.

Our family is one that likes to tease each other in that good natured way that families do. I do it as much as anyone else, but even with family I have to second guess whether what they say to me is truth or joke. Or perhaps if it is a truth cloaked in humour. I never really know. I just laugh and try to think of something witty to say back. At least, now I do. I know that’s what is expected now.

Before I really understood that, I would shrink back or into a book and try to vanish. I would get offended or upset and retreat. What was fun for others was confusing and confronting for me, but I never knew how to express that feeling.

With people I don’t know, the confusion is a thousand times worse. Ask anyone who’s ever flirted with me–most of them get shut down so fast because I’m convinced that they’re playing some sort of joke on me. I get very defensive because I don’t fully understand what’s going on, and defensive is all I’ve got to protect myself with.

 

Do you hate social things?

Quite the opposite, if you’d believe that. I love having people around, even if it does get highly uncomfortable for me. There are certain environments that I hate, such as clubs and music festivals, but for the most part I’m extremely happy when surrounded by the people who matter to me.

There are ways I can push through, and the key one is alcohol. Alcohol dulls my senses and disables most of my filters, so I have a lot more processing power available to enjoy social situations. I refuse to lean on it as a social tool, but in situations where it is acceptable to drink and be merry, I do indeed drink and be merry.

The bonus of alcohol is that in disabling those filters, I’m generally more my authentic self and I don’t give a shit. It’s good training for being able to do that sober!

 

Why did you seek diagnosis?

I changed jobs, from a part time retail gig to a fulltime position as a marketing coordinator. Now, I have a long adjustment cycle for any type of change, but even when I normally should have been settled, I wasn’t.

I was experiencing difficulties I’d only encountered once before–when I was working full time as a network technician. I was tired and unfocused, unreasonably emotional all of the time, and I was struggling to get work done. When I got home, I would collapse on my bed and go straight to sleep. Most nights I was too exhausted to eat.

My productivity suffered for it, and I was beginning to think I was incapable of doing this wonderful new job. In spite of how much I loved it, I couldn’t seem to keep up with the changing priorities and multiple tasks that I was expected to have going at any given time. My brief foray into telemarketing was a complete bust, as I talked over people or said the wrong things, or worse–froze up when the conversation took an unexpected turn.

I had no idea what was wrong. I reached some very low points where my sense of worth was less than nothing. I contemplated returning to the job that provided me very little satisfaction and cried myself to sleep. How could I be so bad at something that I loved so much?

Many things happened in my fight to understand what was happening, but the key moment was an article shared on Facebook. It was on the ‘lost girls’ of autism, girls who were overlooked or misdiagnosed under the belief that autism isn’t something that occurs in females.

When I found a list of behaviours and symptoms, I just stared at the screen–and cried. I’d never read such an accurate description of my experience.

From there I went on a fact-finding mission, reading books and blogs and matching those experiences to mine. The result was almost always tears: of relief, because finally I wasn’t as weird as I thought. There were women out there just like me.

I wasn’t failing at my job because I was dumb. It was structured in a very different way to my previous job. I didn’t have the long gaps between short shifts to recover mentally. I was also working three times as many hours in a week, which is a lot for an autistic person. I shifted from being crippled by self-doubt to proud of what I had managed.

I am an autistic woman who is successfully holding down a full time job. Statistically, that’s quite an achievement! Many other autistic women are not able to manage full time work.

The choice to be properly assessed and formally diagnosed was a personal one. Because these autistic traits were causing issues at work, I felt I needed more than a Google search worth of answers. I needed solid strategies to help improve my productivity and create more balance in my life.

I did some research and located a psychologist who specialised in female autism. My experience with being allocated a local therapist was very hit-and-miss, so this way I was able to choose someone that I felt had the understanding I needed to give me useful answers. I read both Aspiengirl and Aspienwoman by Tania Marshall, and from there I felt reasonably confident that she could help me.

Tania Marshall does more than just diagnose, and as an adult, I needed more than just a label. Her view of Autism/Aspergers as a different wiring of the brain, and an opportunity to leverage super talents was one that I could get behind. Working with her I was able to understand both how I process things, and to begin building a road map toward better self management.

 

Are you glad you discovered your illness finally?

The process has been hard, and very confronting. The first thing I had to adjust on diagnosis was shifting the way I saw myself from having an ‘illness’ and ‘disorder’ with anxiety and depression, to being a person with a ‘condition’—a person with autism.

It may not sound like much, but the difference is huge. Autism isn’t something you cure. It isn’t something you can cure. I’m not sure I’d want to even if I could–it’s the source of my strengths as much as it is the source of my weaknesses. Like any other person, I need to manage those weaknesses and optimise my strengths. Unlike any other person, failure to take care of myself and to manage those weaknesses will result in a meltdown.

I’m very glad to have found this answer. So many things in my life make more sense through the lens of Autism. I struggle to let go of things before I fully understand how they occurred, so now that I have a better understanding of some of the more shameful events in my life, I can finally forgive myself for them. I finally know how and why they occured.

I can finally stop thinking of myself as broken, stupid, and a failure. Instead, I have been someone trying to survive in an alien world, living under the incorrect assumption that I should be able to survive the same way as everyone else.

I can’t. I need my own way, and that’s perfectly okay.

Importantly, I am not ill. I am just different.

Diagnosis for me meant that I was able to see more clearly the experience I have. It gave me the language to describe it to others. It gave meaning and hope that I could not just eventually be free of the more damaging effects–but manipulate my strengths into superpowers.

I always was and always will be autistic.

 

Isn’t everyone a ‘little bit autistic’?

Yes… and no. Everyone has traits that are commonly found in autistic people. But to say that everyone experiences them in the same intensity and with the same consequences as an autistic person is to completely disregard how painful and frightening a meltdown can be.

You might not like that itchy tag at the back of your shirt. For me, it will itch and itch and itch until I either escape it, or I break down.

 

Were you vaccinated?

Sigh. Yes. As you’ll notice, I also didn’t die of measles, mumps, or rubella.

The vaccination-causes-autism myth is completely bogus. There was never a time in my life where I was not autistic. The rise in autism diagnoses is due to the greater understanding of autism and its traits, not the increase in vaccinations.

Autism is primarily genetic. For any autistic person, there are family members who display fragments of autistic traits. Those traits are passed on, creating a profile that carries enough autistic traits for the individual to be deemed diagnosably autistic. The chance of my own children, should I have any, being autistic is incredibly high.

I will never understand the argument against vaccination on the grounds it causes autism. I would much rather this, than a preventable illness.

 

If you’re autistic, shouldn’t it have been caught in school?

For boys, this is most often the case. Girls are diagnosed on average two years later–and more and more women are discovering themselves at the age of thirty or higher. These older women (myself included) were in school at a time where the idea of girls being autistic was still a foreign one.

What happens in a lot of undiagnosed women is a cycle of not coping, where the woman is fine for a time–and then everything falls in a heap. There’s time for recovery, and then it begins again. It goes on until the woman goes into what is known as ‘autistic burnout’ or ‘autistic regression’.

 

Autistic regression?

Basically, a surge in autism symptoms. The individual is too run down or burned out to tolerate the things she did before, in the way she did before. Compensatory strategies that used to work are no longer as effective, and meltdowns become more frequent and more intense.

This is what drives most women to seek more answers. For me, changing my job was what drove me into a state of autistic regression, and I’m still trying to dig my way out of it.

 

Why can’t you just shrug it off and keep going?

Well-meaning advice suggests I should be able to tough things out, and push through. Some days, yes, that’s possible and productive. It’s not a strategy for the long-term, though.

Constantly pushing past my limits, not listening to my body when it demands rest, continues the cycle of not coping. It results in recurring burnout, each episode worse than the one before. In women who were not fortunate enough to be diagnosed, who continued trying to achieve things in the same way as their allistic peers, that burnout became permanent.

Nervous breakdowns, permanent fatigue, and critically reduced tolerance to sensory input? That’s definitely not a life I want to lead. So taking care of myself now, tolerating what I can and taking the time to recharge when I need to is highly important.

I need to accept myself as an autistic person, and make decisions accordingly.

 

How else do you cope?

I do a lot of things to cope on a daily basis. Wearing sunglasses (including inside at work), taking breaks during social activities, and having something I can hyperfocus on to ‘recharge’ if I can’t step away–those are some of the basics.

When I get home, I change into comfortable clothes that don’t cause excess sensory input. I spend my lunch breaks in a dark room, and you can usually find me resting with my eyes closed. Not asleep, but processing and blocking out the light for a while.

I get my nails done professionally, partly because it feels good and I like the uniqueness of it. It makes me feel like I stand out for the oddball that I am. But also because it flattens the tips and allows me to release pressure by scratching, without doing any damage. I get glitter polishes because watching the light sparkle is soothing to me, and can help stabilise me when I don’t have the ability to retreat.

I try to walk a line between avoiding things that induce meltdowns, and maintaining an active life. That’s a balance I’m still learning.

 

How are you still rambling?

I honestly don’t know. I hope this gave you a bit more insight into my world of Autism. I would love to answer any questions you have, or hear your own experiences.

Inverse

Inverse

So far this week has been horrible. I tried to look after myself over the weekend, finding quiet spaces and times out to breathe and reduce the rising sense of tension that frays the edges of my mind. I couldn’t get drunk enough on Saturday to overcome the sense of crowding and noise, only for the couple of hours that the AFL grand final had me entirely transfixed on the screen could I block it out. At least that meant no hangover on Sunday, even though I wanted to stand up in the middle of the restaurant we went to for breakfast-lunch and scream.

Roaring air vents, a hundred conversations, cutlery tapping and plates clinking all around me. I couldn’t think of a good enough excuse to leave the restaurant, so I stayed. Some of it I spent with my hands over my ears, trying to block the bulk of it out.

I hate doing that. I hate it. First, it’s weird. I look like a freak. And it’s rude. We’re supposed to be having a family thing and stupid me is bitching about the noise level. The restaurant is full of other people coping with it just fine. I have to suck it up. By the time we leave, my head is thumping and I feel nauseous.

Monday was wrong from the start. I was exhausted. Not from lack of sleep–I caught most of that up–but so drained that my eyelids kept fluttering shut during the marketing meeting. It was an early start day for the first work day of the month, and I was good and organised. Awake and ready in time, a huge bowl of breakfast to keep me sustained (it didn’t work) and a taxi booked to take me there with enough time to gather my notes from my desk and start.

Taxi was across town, and on the way to getting me, encountered road closures due to minor flooding. Instead of having time to settle and get my things together properly, I rushed in exactly on time. I spent the rest of the day battling with myself, trying to keep myself focused on the tasks I needed to do.

Monday night was the worst, though. My brain loves to strike when I’m weakest. Asleep. I have extremely vivid dreams, so much that I often can’t tell the difference between them and reality. Only going through the events and identifying those that couldn’t possibly have taken place sorts out what happened and what didn’t. They sit in my mind like memories, complete with smells and sounds and tastes. And the feelings that went with them. I’ve found myself in trouble before where I believe something, a conversation or an action, has taken place–only to realise later that what I’m recalling is a memory.

I spent months… maybe years? Petrified my parents would discover this one terrible, horrible, awful thing I did. I felt sick every time I thought of it. I told myself every day it couldn’t have happened, it wasn’t possible, but every moment it felt like I was going to be discovered and punished. I think I was around eight at the time.

Monday night’s dream involved a former friend, who in the dream I believed to be my best and closest ally, telling everyone around me that I was crazy. Don’t date me. Don’t let your children around me. Don’t put anything fragile or precious into my hands, don’t risk yourself being near me. I was cursed, and the curse I carried could be passed on.

The crushing betrayal of discovering she was the one behind it is still with me. I can’t shake it, no matter what I do. And as for her message in the dream? It’s an insecurity that occupies a dark corner of my mind. Who on this planet would trust the care of a child to a woman who needs an alarm to tell her to eat regularly? How purely selfish and cruel would I have to be, to create a child knowing it had a high chance of inheriting the same faults that I have? How can I ask anyone else to live beside me when I would run if I could?

Stupid things set me off. Simple tasks. Things a monkey could do, and yet I fuck them up. So much that just being asked to alphabetise and file paperwork now makes me feel ill. I don’t know how I’m making these mistakes, it’s not hard. I think I’m putting things in the right place, only to discover later that I haven’t. I hum my way through the alphabet to work out what goes where, I utilise space to form piles by first letter and sort those piles, I break down the task to the easiest to manage microlevel–and I still fuck it up.

I can disprove the existence of God in a philosophy essay, I can research something to death and find a way to present what is unique about it to a potential buyer, but… I can’t alphabetise fucking paperwork. It comes back to one of those questions that has stalked me my whole life: How can I be so smart, and still so stupid?

Not that I ever feel smart. What I have is a head  full of mostly irrelevant information. Usually things no one wants to hear about and that are only of interest to me. It’s reality that is more telling, and in reality, I seem to get everything wrong. I say the wrong thing, I don’t think things through (or at least, I think I have–but didn’t come to the right conclusion). I don’t think to do things that I’m told are common sense.

Whatever I do, it comes with the same jarring sense of having fucked up. Again. Being the weird one. Saying the dumb thing. What’s the point of knowing about contemporary Australian serial killers when you can’t interact with people? There’s always a rule I seem to be missing, something that makes it glaringly obvious that I’m faking my way along. I try to remember the rules to all the different occasions, but it’s a lot to try and manage.

Maybe everyone feels stupid like that. It’s not just how I feel though, it’s what I do as well. I was the girl who put three hundred dollars worth of frozen items into the fridge, because a manager told me over the phone to ‘put it in the fridge’ and I was too stupid to think around those exact words.

And you’re not allowed to have those sort of mistakes if people think you’re smart. You’re too clever to do something that foolish, so it has to have been deliberate. Or that you didn’t care. Or you were selfish, inconsiderate, more concerned with other things than the task at hand. It can’t ever be that you’re actually just stupid.

Most days I would give up every bit of my alleged intelligence just to have a conversation and not be ticking off ‘appropriate’ behaviours in the back of my mind. Not be questioning every word out of my mouth. Not be distracted and annoyed by cacophonous background noise. To talk about the weather and bounce from one mundane topic to the next without relying on a set of answers that I know are expected by the other person.

To be able to articulate the things I want to express during a conversation without the words being misconstrued! To know what is useful to tell other people and when to tell it. To just… be able to have a conversation that is less comfortable without ending up in tears. I don’t even know why it happens. It just does. Sometimes because I’m frustrated, there are things I want to say… but they’re not in words. They’re not available to me. They’re snippets of feelings and colours and a twisting in my gut.

It annoys people. It’s not the right reaction. Once again, I get it wrong–only I don’t know how to stop it from happening. It just starts and then the only option I have to avoid it bothering others is to remove myself from the situation. People keep telling me I need to be less sensitive, but I don’t know how. How do you turn that off? How do you stop every feeling from being a rush of happiness, or a crushing heaviness? I try to mute it where I can, but that’s just turning down the external volume.

I still feel it. I still have to deal with it. Along with the noise and the light, the constant questioning of my own behaviour, learning rules and remembering to say the right words and do the right actions. Managing deadlines at work, coming up with new and interesting copy, the constant interruption that is the stupid phone, getting more things wrong and making more dumb mistakes, emails, and trying not to freak out at all the headlights when I cross roads. Then weekends with people that I dearly love and feeling horrible when I have to find a quiet space because surely…

Surely.

Fucking surely I should be able to manage this.

But the days just cycle through, one overwhelming and exhausting day after another. It’s not like I’m doing anything special or hard. Plenty of people manage far more and do it fine. Why can’t I? What’s so wrong with me that I can’t manage these regular things? Why does it always end in me breaking down?

I don’t know.

I really just… don’t fucking know.

For we are young and free speech is illegal?

For we are young and free speech is illegal?

Free speech is being choked out of us by restrictive laws! You can’t say anything anymore! Torch the Racial Discrimination Sections 18c and 18d!

While it may be true that the social consequences of ‘you can’t say that!’ are getting trickier to navigate, the legal restrictions on ‘free speech’ in the Racial Discrimination Act (1975) are actually quite straight forward.

Senator Cory Bernardi is calling on Australians to ‘defend free speech’ with adjustments to RDA section 18c by removing the words ‘insult’ and ‘offend’ from the following:

Offensive behaviour because of race, colour or national or ethnic origin

             (1)  It is unlawful for a person to do an act, otherwise than in private, if:

                     (a)  the act is reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people; and

                     (b)  the act is done because of the race, colour or national or ethnic origin of the other person or of some or all of the people in the group.

The practical effect of such a semantic switch would be akin to giving your toddler a brick to smash his toe with, rather than a mallet.

Bernardi claims that the law ‘should not concern itself with feelings’, and perhaps he has a point there–it’s tough enough to apply law to cold hard facts, why should someone’s feelings be considered also?

First of all, because the Racial Discrimination Act is designed to build a social structure that includes and welcomes everyone, regardless of race or ethnicity. Where groups are publicly made to feel less than others in community spaces, that destroys any sense of inclusion they may have had. Feelings are at the very core of this law.

Secondly, Bernardi has only picked ‘offend’ and ‘insult’ from the list of harms. ‘Humiliation’ is also a feeling, as is ‘intimidation’. To exclude all feelings from the practice of this law would take away any meaning. The only means by which racial vilification could be proved is by non-emotions based evidence: physical assault, statistics, and other symptoms that appear long after insults have bred into negative attitudes.

The truth is, removing two words does very little to change the way this law would work. Someone who is ‘insulted’ may no longer be able to claim this in court, but ‘insulted’ persons often feel ‘humiliated’, the practical applications of the law would not change at all.

Changing this law is an exercise in futile grandstanding, a politician who seeks to whip up support by claiming the political left is choking Australia’s right to free speech. Which would be all well and good, if he had any plan to do something substantial about it.

Note that this is also included:

Note:          Subsection (1) makes certain acts unlawful. Section 46P of the Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986 allows people to make complaints to the Australian Human Rights Commission about unlawful acts. However, an unlawful act is not necessarily a criminal offence. Section 26 says that this Act does not make it an offence to do an act that is unlawful because of this Part, unless Part IV expressly says that the act is an offence.

These acts are unlawful but they are not considered criminal offenses. Charges are not brought by the state against the person, they are civil complaints that are handled by the Australian Human Rights Commission.

This is not the same as being prosecuted in criminal court.

So let’s have a good look at the RDA sections in question, 18c and 18d, and see just how restricted our free speech really is!

Section 18c (a) makes it pretty clear that it is unlawful to do anything (other than in private) that could upset someone if the reason for doing it rests on their being of a certain race/ethnicity/religion/etc.

That seems fair to me. I could agree with repealing this law if it meant that Australians were going to act on common sense and what their mothers taught them. It’s unfortunate that we need laws to teach us not to be dicks to each other. Be nice to each other, unless you’re in a private space.

(2)  For the purposes of subsection (1), an act is taken not to be done in private if it:

                     (a)  causes words, sounds, images or writing to be communicated to the public; or

                     (b)  is done in a public place; or

                     (c)  is done in the sight or hearing of people who are in a public place.

“public place ” includes any place to which the public have access as of right or by invitation, whether express or implied and whether or not a charge is made for admission to the place.

A public place can be considered as anywhere that you might reasonably have an ‘audience’, whether that’s via public media, social networks, or community spaces. Places where you are likely to be heard or seen by the persons you are speaking against, and where your actions can directly affect them.

This is especially important for journalists, politicians, and other prominent personalities who may have their words taken as fact.

The law is not telling you that you can’t have an opinion. The law isn’t telling you that you can’t voice your opinion to your mates. It clearly states that negative acts that are racially motivated are not accepted in community spaces and media.

While we’re on the subject of voicing opinions, there are some exceptions to 18c:

Section 18C does not render unlawful anything said or done reasonably and in good faith:

                     (a)  in the performance, exhibition or distribution of an artistic work;

Artistic work is ‘free speech’ at its best. Art is how we express the state of the social structure, art is how our society will be seen by generations after us. We understand history by Shakespeare, Picasso and Mozart–Australians of the future will experience our society in a similar way.

Art shows us a reflection of what is, and inspires us to change. That is why it’s more acceptable to enact discrimination via artistic means. Art is supposed to challenge us and make us feel, to be confronting.

(b)  in the course of any statement, publication, discussion or debate made or held for any genuine academic, artistic or scientific purpose or any other genuine purpose in the public interest;

If what you are saying is proven fact, you cannot be sued. Even if the fact is hurtful or humiliating, it is not unfair nor unjust to speak it in a public setting. This passage also provides immunity for discriminatory practices used in research on how and why people discriminate, and debates on society and discrimination.

This allows us to openly discuss what discrimination is, and what discriminating attitudes we might feel ourselves as we open our minds to understanding the subjects of those attitudes. Discrimination is a social issue, and not one we should run from.

If you are expressing a view that is unacceptable under 18c, but is for the purposes of learning or is proven fact, you are protected by 18d.

(c)  in making or publishing:

                              (i)  a fair and accurate report of any event or matter of public interest; or

                             (ii)  a fair comment on any event or matter of public interest if the comment is an expression of a genuine belief held by the person making the comment.

For those of you who were wondering where your right to an opinion went, here it is.

If you honestly, truly, believe in what you’re saying, you might be ignorant but you cannot be sued. This is why politicians like Pauline Hanson, who openly expresses her reservations about multicultural aspects of Australia, are not sued under 18c. She has an opinion that she wholly believes, has built a platform upon it, and though she offends and insults a lot of people over public media–she can’t be sued on ignorance alone.

The first part of (c) allows news outlets to report what occurred, without fear of litigation. If an attack occurred that was carried out by persons of a single race, so long as the account of the event is true and void of opinion-based speculation (unless written in an article stated as opinion) there are no grounds for litigation.

In summary:

Truth, common sense, and respect for others are the core values at the heart of The Racial Discrimination Act (1975) Sections 18c and 18d. The law and these amendments in no way infringe on anyone’s right to speak the truth, only restricting the unfounded fear-mongering hate rhetoric that injures others and damages Australia’s chances at an inclusive society.

If Bernardi wants to preserve ‘free speech’, he needs to do more than try and remove a few words. He needs to help Australia understand what free speech is, and what is appropriate according to the existing law. His changes won’t have any functional effect, just another distraction in Canberra.

Nine ways (not) to telemarket.

I’d never done telemarketing before last week. In fact, I’d actively avoided any position that listed telemarketing as a possible task. You can imagine the dread that settled in my stomach when I was informed that yes, my wonderful new job required me to put in a few hours each day calling through prospected clients.

I’m not a phone person. I can’t even order a pizza. I won’t call my own sister if a text message will do. And yet, here I was at my beautiful new desk, staring at the phone trying to summon the courage to dial the first number.

Now, I have a lot of support in the role. In just a week I’ve not only discovered that I can make those calls, I actually love it. The one downside to an office job as opposed to a retail position is not getting to talk to as many people, telemarketing fills that gap quite nicely.

So with all of a week’s experience under my belt, I answered the phone on Friday afternoon to a fellow telemarketer. I won’t say what she was pushing, only that I spent far too long trying to get off the phone and back to the meeting I was supposed to be in. That’s when it occurred to me that while the training I’d been given was certainly helping–almost everything I knew about telemarketing I’d learned from the other end.

Here are some of the more annoying mistakes and pitfalls I’ve found.

1. I am not your darling, your dear, or your sweetheart.

It doesn’t help that I sound like a twelve-year-old, but my childlike voice is not a licence to treat me as one. Speaking too familiarly with someone too soon will put them off. You’re not their friend. Laugh and joke as the conversation leads, and call me by my name if you have it available, but whatever you do—don’t call me baby.

2. Use my name—not someone else’s.

You might have just been talking to Maria, the name was still stuck in your mind. It just slipped out. It’s an honest mistake that we’ll all make at some point, just be aware that it will almost definitely cost you the call. One minute we’re happily chatting, the next I realise you’ve been chatting to some other ‘Maria’—and you’ve lost me. Sorry. This potential customer wants to feel special, not just another number on a list. Be extra careful with names. Say the name of the person you’re calling five times before you dial just to make sure it’s locked in your head.

3. Pronunciation matters.

I don’t think my name is hard to say, but you’d be amazed how many people make a mess of it. There are definitely worse names to try and say when you’ve only ever seen them written before. There’s a real skill to recovering when you’ve mis-pronounced someone’s name, so unless you’ve got that knack you’re going to need to think more strategically when faced with the next Stephen (is it pronounced Steven or Stefan this time?). Most people say their own name when they answer, so listen hard and mimic when you need to. The same applies with voice mail. If your CRM has a ‘pronunciation’ field, check that.

4. Youreallydoneedtotakeabreath.

I’m not going to hang up in the time it takes you to breathe. Telemarketing is a role where it’s especially important to be clear and precise in what you say. Slow your words down and let me hear your message before I decide to continue with the call or not. Rushing forward is a waste of time, you end up keeping people on the line who are truly not interested—they just can’t find a space to hang up. If you’re worried about keeping people on the line longer, ask questions. Engage in a two-way conversation that allows you to discuss what you’re offering properly.

5. And listen.

There’s no point asking me questions if you’re not going to take my answers into account. If I’ve just told you that I don’t have a dog, you shouldn’t be asking me what colour it is. The same goes for information I offer without prompting. My most recent experience with a telemarketer had her talking over top of my trying to explain that I had no control over decision making. In fact, she went as far as to insist that I did have that power and would be able to supply her the information she was asking for. I couldn’t get off the phone fast enough.

6. Now is not always a convenient time.

In that same conversation, I had to explain that the actual decision makers were in a meeting. It took a while to get through, but eventually I was able to ask if I could take her details and get someone more appropriate to call her back. My reward for that was being told that it “had to be now”. By this time she’d wasted nearly fifteen minutes of her time and mine. How many potential customers had she not called while she was on the phone with me? Accept that the people you need to speak to aren’t always there. Ask when would be a more convenient time and make a note to call back.

7. Grumpiness begets grumpiness.

It’s an age-old rule of customer service. However grumpy and bothered you are, never let it show. Customers can smell it over the phone. It poisons the call. You’re more likely to get happy conversations if you approach your calls with a positive attitude and a smile in your voice. My phone has a little sticker below that says ‘Smile when you Dial’ and silly as that small thing seems it helps a lot. Keep that smile going until you’ve hung up, no matter what happens. Once that phone is down you can do what you like. Run around screaming like a velociraptor if you must. If you want your calls to go smoothly and pleasantly, you need to be the one to set the tone.

8. Remember: you’re the voice.

While you’re on the phone you’re no longer you. You’re the voice of the company. What you say and how you say it directly impacts the impression the customer has of your company. If you have a script, stick as close to it as you can. Those words have been especially chosen to communicate the company’s intent. If you don’t have a script, discuss with your colleagues what language you use when calling. Consider what really represents the company’s core beliefs and stay true to those when speaking on the phone. Stay positive and professional.

9. Above all else, don’t lie.

Never make promises the company can’t keep for you, and never guess at information you don’t have. This goes double for anything involving money. If you say you can save someone a hundred dollars a week, they won’t be satisfied with $99.99. Make sure you can back up everything you say, and make sure you do everything you say. Again, as a point of contact for the company, your misdirection and false information will create a poor image of the company. Even if it gets you the sale, it’s not worth the disappointed and angry customer down the track. Offer to find the information, to investigate what can be done. Never, never, lie.