A blog advocating autism through my own personal experiences and insights.

UW’s Women’s Centre

This winter I tried a new extra-curricular activity. I have written a few posts on this blog related to the issue of feminism and gender-related issues, but now I’ve found a way to meet other like-minded people with respect to such issues and to actually advocate for them. I volunteered for the University of Waterloo’s Women Centre this term, which is a student-run organisation on campus that promotes feminism and gender equity. I submitted an application online to them in the fall and heard back at the beginning of the winter term that they accepted me as a volunteer.

I had to attend a one day training session on how to be a volunteer for the Centre. It basically consisted of explaining to us our responsibilities, such as holding office hours in the Centre and how to help students in need who come to the Centre, especially for peer support hours. Peer support hours are hours that run 5-6 everyday where any student is welcome to drop by to discuss any personal problems they have to the volunteer who’s on duty at that time for emotional support and resources. The Centre is in this smallish cozy room with a desk, a library on feminism, and a few comfortable couches and chairs. Besides holding office hours there, I’ve also found it a good alternative space to study.

Unsurprisingly, the rest of the volunteers are women. I’ve been involved with activities before where the majority of participants were female (for example, during my Zumba classes) so I was never really bothered by that. I do, however, find it a bit unfortunate that more men don’t get involved with these kinds of things, especially since gender inequity affects men as well as women and indeed affects people of all genders. I know that such issues have touched me as well as others, which further inspired me to volunteer in the first place and I strongly believe that feminism and gender-related issues need gender-diverse supports (besides being diverse in other ways) for its proper activism. The women I’ve worked with this term, however, have been very friendly and welcoming and I’m slowly making friends with some of them.

Besides holding office hours in the centre, I’ve also helped volunteer for various feminist events. My favourite has been the Poetry Slam, which was a night held on Waterloo’s on-campus pub The Bomber where any and all students with feminist poetry were welcome to read them. I loved hearing them all and will definitely participate myself at a future poetry slam event.

I’m glad I decided to get involved with the Women’s Centre and I look forward to continuing with it in the future.

Depressive Episodes

It has been a sad week for the University of Waterloo this past week. A student committed suicide. While this has created shock across the campus, I believe it shows there is a lot more work to be done on the issue of mental health and that there is still stigma against talking about it. While it is incredibly unfortunate that this suicide happened, it has inspired me to share my own experience in dealing with depressive episodes. I don’t tell everything that’s happening in my life on this blog (either because some details I’m just not comfortable sharing or too private to share), but I would like to take the time to talk about how depression has personally affected me. I do hope to help remove a lot of the stigma that surrounds these issues.

Throughout my life, lot of things have made me have periods of depression. This probably won’t surprise you if you’ve read a lot of my blog. Being diagnosed with autism has created certain difficulties in my life, which then lead to depression. There have also been other triggers for depression in my life, but again I won’t go into detail on them here. A little over two years ago, however, I ended up having a pretty bad depressive episode. I remember it like it was yesterday. It affected how much I could work and even affected my basic daily functions. Even getting dressed or getting breakfast for myself were a challenge on some days. It felt like it would never end. I went to a doctor and talked with him about putting myself on an anti-depressant. I was also seeing a psychologist at the time who I also discussed this option. with In the end, I ended up going on the S.S.R.I. (Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) Zoloft.

While there are mixed views out there about anti-depressants and S.S.R.I.s and there’s a certain stigma against them, my personal experience with Zoloft is that it has been helpful in calming me down, removing some of the anxiety and depression. I don’t believe, however, that such medications are a permanent solution to mental health problems. Actually discussing such problems with a professional is more important. What I do believe, however, is that such medications can be very useful in soothing the healing process. For a period, I was on a dosage of 100 mg of Zoloft daily, but due to an undesirable side effect, I reduced my dosage back down to 50 mg hence reducing the side-effect, so being aware of possible side-effects is important as well. Fortunately, even on 50 mg, I’ve found the benefits are still present.

I’ve been talking a lot about my issues with depression with my current therapist (the one I’m seeing for social anxiety I describe a couple of posts back) and have found she is really making it easier for me to pull myself out of this current depressive episode. We’ve been going through CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy) where we examine how thoughts influence feelings, which in turn influence behaviours, which then influence thoughts and so creates a vicious cycle. She is very good at helping me break this cycle through altering my behaviour and challenging my perceptions and learning to accept perceptions that are different than mine. As such, I’ve learned how to be more accepting and less judging of myself and others.

I hope others affected by depression will also share and talk about their own experiences. We need to end this stigma and the more voices we have the more powerful our cause will be.

 

I’ve read a few blog posts over the past few days that have really opened my eyes to an issue in autism diagnosis. They are here: https://themighty.com/2017/02/autism-feminism-and-bodily-autonomy/  and http://www.loveyourrebellion.org/intersections/autism-is-a-feminist-issue/. I’ve always known that there have been far more males diagnosed with autism than females, but after doing some reading, have discovered that this disadvantages females with autism in a few ways. Regardless of whether there is any biological or psychological explanation for this unbalanced proportion, this unbalanced proportion is unfortunately at times to be taken as encouragement for the prejudice that autism is strictly a male trait. Even professional studies done on autism often focus primarily on males with ASD (autism spectrum disorder), while not addressing the issues that females with ASD face.

Society has an easier time labeling a man as “odd” or socially challenged than doing so for a woman. One of the core defining characteristics of having autism is having social difficulties and, as such, many girls with autism go undiagnosed until their adults with many of them being misdiagnosed when they were younger. Females are somehow expected to have exceedingly good social skills. They must appear kind and gentle and not easily tempered and they can be judged harshly based on how they look and behave. Females with ASD might not adhere to American’s standards of beauty or not appearing “ladylike”. They are particularly vulnerable to such judgement because one of the characteristics of autism is experiencing difficulty in not understanding a lot of the dogmatic social rules that govern society.

I like how one of the authors of one of the post describes bodily autonomy on her own terms and relates it to having autism. One of the major issues that feminism deals with is uninvited sexual advances that many girls and women deal with, such as catcalling and rape, which feminists place under the phrase “my body, my choice”. This author, however, points out that this phrase means far more to her than just the issue of rape culture. To her it means portraying her body through her mannerisms and behaviours, exactly as she sees fit without being teased, ridiculed, or outcasted for it. Even some people who call themselves “feminists” are not true feminists; they are only advocating for the most privileged of women without giving a voice to other women who may experience different issues. Such people frustrate me because they’re completely missing the point of what feminism is all about: equality for all.

Given this analysis of these social factors that come into play in diagnosing boys and girls with ASD, I am a bit skeptical that the diagnostic rates are accurate when it comes to displaying the actual proportion of males to females with autism. I am not dismissing here the negative or unfavourable reactions a male with autism might receive in not having good social skills (a lot of this blog has been after all about my own social difficulties as a male with autism). Rather, I am emphasising how gender roles in society make this especially hard for females with ASD. And this is what makes autism a feminist issue.

Well over a year ago, I had unfortunately slipped into one of my loneliness phases. I was rather dissatisfied with my social life at the time and sought out further help in this aspect of my life. I heard that the Centre of Mental Health Research at the University of Waterloo was putting on a program for people dealing with social anxiety. Knowing that this applied to me, I was instantly curious and contacted them. Their program was being primarily run by PhD students in psychology under the supervision of faculty members who were professional psychologists. These students would run therapy sessions in both group and individual settings, depending on the needs of the clients.

After contacting them, they gave me a couple of phone interviews with me, wanting to know my background and what specifically my needs were. I told them everything, such as being diagnosed with high-functioning autism and my social difficulties, pretty much all of which I have written about in this blog. They said they would get back to me soon to let me know if I was suitable for the program. A week or two later, they did come back and decided to take me on. They said I would benefit most from individual therapy sessions, instead of a group setting, which was completely fine with me. It would be good to have their undivided attention. Unfortunately, however, they also said they had no time for me at that moment, but that they could put me on a waiting list where they would get back in about a year. That was just fine by me. I would still be here at Waterloo and understood the high demand for their services.

Back in September of this year, they did indeed contact me again to let me know that a spot had opened up for me if I still desired to be part of their program. I was pleased they had gotten back to me and of course I said yes. I would meet with someone once a week. I certainly appreciated this frequency, especially since in my past meetings with psychologists and counsellors at Waterloo, I would be lucky to meet with someone every other week, given the size of the university.

I was paired up with a PhD student in psychologist who would be my therapist. Our first few sessions were spent on her to getting to know me and my areas of concern through interviews and filling out questionnaires. Once that was over with, we started on the social anxiety therapy itself.

I have gotten help for anxiety before when I went over to the Students Success office at Waterloo in preparing for my PhD comprehensive exams in How Anxiety Works For Me. There are similar techniques in overcoming anxiety in social situations. For example, you can run a social experiment where you plan to put yourself in a social situation that is a little out of your comfort zone. You first write down how you feel and what you expect to happen and give a percentage on the chances of a certain outcome happening. Then you list your safety behaviours that you must abandon in the experiment, which are detrimental behaviours that one uses in coping in anxious situations without avoiding the specific situations altogether. For example, one of my safety behaviours is thinking a lot before replying in a conversation. By doing so, I am not avoiding the situation that is causing me anxiety entirely, i.e. having a conversation, but I am still using a behaviour that hinders my enjoyment out of having the conversation. Then you go and do the social experiment and come back and jot down what you learned in challenging your anxious thinking, to what extent the initial prediction was true, and put down a new percentage of the chances of the initial prediction happening in further situations.

It is strategies like these that are helping and will hopefully continue to help me as I continue to push the boundaries of my comfort zone to combat social anxiety. I will also add that it is indeed very nice to see someone on a weekly basis to help guide me through this. She gives me strategies to try every week like the one above, which helps keep me motivated and accountable. It’s absolutely wonderful that Waterloo set up such a program and recognised the demand for it. Hopefully as time goes on, more places will recognise this demand as well.

 

On Masculinity

A couple of months ago, I saw a poster in the math building at the University of Waterloo advertising an interesting workshop. It was inviting the male Waterloo students to come to talk and discuss what it means to be masculine and to be a man. As a feminist and someone who’s very interested in the topic of gender, I was very curious and so attended. The workshop was run by a young gender equity advocate Stephen Soucie and it took only two minutes into it that I knew I had made the right decision to attend. Stephen lectured and had a discussion with us on how society (especially in our western culture) has shaped the male and female gender roles in detrimental ways and how this has promoted gender inequity and gender-based violence.

I loved the discussion and completely agreed with Stephen throughout. He started by asking us what expectations society holds on males. We brainstormed a lot and came up with several, including stoic, unemotional, hypersexual, strong, aggressive, etc. and then brainstormed ways in which men are ridiculed if they do not live up to these expectations to a sufficient degree. For example, men who do not fit this stereotype are more prone to bullying. They are often called things like “pussy”, “faggot”, “gay”, “bitch”, or “little girl”. Not only is such name-calling hurtful to the targeted men, but they are also harmful to women because they carry the implication that women are somehow inferior to men. These expectations, however, are a product of society and there is no rational basis for them. One could argue that these expectations come from the biological sex differences between males and females, but as Stephen pointed out, western society has overemphasised such differences. Moreover, male and female aren’t even exhaustive categories when it comes to either gender or sex, giving another reason why these gender roles need to be abandoned. Both gender and sex do not just consist of two categories, but both exist on a spectrum with male on one end and female on the other with a great variety in between.

Earlier in this blog, I mentioned how some of my social desires would be classified as feminine, such as cuddling with platonic friends. A little over a year ago, I did attend a Cuddle party once in Toronto (this is a social gathering where people can physically touch each other such as through cuddling in non-sexual ways) and I always find it fascinating that the majority of the attendees are male. I believe this is because society find platonic cuddling between women to be acceptable, but if a man or men are involved in this act, then it’s automatically classified as sexual and two men who cuddle are automatically labeled as “gay”. Society wouldn’t bat an eye if two women were crying in each other’s arms over a romantic movie, yet try replacing those two women with two men and you get something that’s completely unheard of. Our heteronormative society does not encourage homosocial bonding between men, which has a tremendous impact on men’s emotional and physical health.

These gender roles also promote gender-based violence in our society. Often, gender-based violence is portrayed as a women’s issue, often associated with the phrase “Violence against women”. You hear stories, for example on the news or in the newspaper, “Woman raped” or “Woman murdered”, failing to mention the perpetrator in the title (usually a man). But who the perpetrator is is just as relevant and stopping this gender-based violence takes way more than simply informing girls that they need to be careful, or to tell boys they need to behave properly. These, in my opinion, are just band-aid solutions, if they are even any kind of solutions at all.

Who are the perpetrators? Mostly men. Why are so many more men (many with horrible pasts, psychological problems, etc.) than women committing these horrific crimes? This is what the rest of the discussion with Stephen was about. These men weren’t born as killers or rapists. The rub is that it was fed into them starting from an early age, regardless if it was intentional or unintentional. They came to learn that to be a man, you must exhibit certain characteristics. They feel they need to be tough, aggressive, hypersexual, stoic, etc. and it often gets to the point where they feel that the only way they can measure up to these expectations and let out all the negative emotions they are feeling is by committing violence, especially against women. These societal expectations placed on men have affected their well-being very negatively and, as such, gender-based violence is just as much as a men’s issue as it is a women’s issue.

I am not trying to excuse the crimes that men commit here because men happen to be raised in a certain way. Crimes such as murder, rape, and domestic violence and abuse are horrible and should carry a heavy sentence regardless whenever they are committed. Instead, this analysis of the issue should be used when we’re asking what needs to happen for this violence to be resolved. In order to have equality for women, we need equality for men as well and indeed for people of all genders.

Since the workshop, I have stayed in touch with Stephen, and we have talked about these issues further and exchanged books and movies on the subject. One movie that I borrowed from Stephen was called Tough Guise 2 and it’s about everything I’ve written in this post and I highly recommend it.

The world is rife with inequity, and gender is definitely a prime example. I remain optimistic, however, that we as a society can correct this. Simply talking about it and advocating this issue is a definite first step.

Learning How to Teach

Having laid out my plans to continue on in academia after my PhD, I have become aware that there is another set of skills besides good research ability that I need to have and that is teaching ability. Back a few years ago, it was common for potential professors getting their PhDs to not get any training in teaching at all, but simply to learn as they went along. Some succeeded in this way, while others not so much. There is a big difference between being an expert on a certain subject and having the skills necessary to teach it effectively. Fortunately, however, more and more universities today are recognising that actual training in teaching and not just becoming knowledgeable in a subject area is a good idea to set up for future potential university professors. The University of Waterloo has certainly recognised this need and has set up two programs for graduate students to take if they wish to make teaching part of their careers. One of the programs, The Fundamentals of University Teaching, I completed this past summer and the other, The Certificate of University Teaching (CUT), I have just begun this fall. These programs are run by the Centre of Teaching Excellence who greatly encourage any graduate students to take them if they wish to continue in academia. The former is a program that any graduate student can enter into. It requires attending at least six workshops where we learn different teaching methods and styles. It also requires giving three microteaching sessions.

Ever since entering my PhD, I’ve always known I would like to be an instructor of a course before graduating. I have spoken of this desire with the pure math department, and one of my supervisors has let me step in for him as a guest lecturer in two undergraduate classes he’s teaching in the past couple of weeks. The experience was a little anxiety provoking since I’ve never taught a full class period before, but it went reasonably well both times. The first time I did it, he supplied me with the notes that I would teach from. He sat in and provided me with great constructive feedback afterwards. The second time he only gave me a topic with which to teach the class and let me write up all the notes. He reviewed them the day before I would be lecturing and said they were all right. My second supervisor then attended the lecture and said afterwards that my teaching went really well and that I had improved on a couple of things that my other supervisor had noted about the first time, such as my use of whiteboard space. I asked a lot of questions to the students during the lectures to help keep the class engaged, which seemed to work each time. I also experimented with a learning activity that I learned in the teaching programs, which is called a one minute paper. This is where at the end of the lecture I got the students to write down anything confusing on the topic. I also made the second lecturing experience part of my CUT program in so far that I got a staff member from the Centre of Teaching Excellence to supervise my teaching as well.

While still no concrete plans are in place in my teaching a whole course, I know I’m on my way to making this happen. I have proven myself as an excellent researcher within the department and I am now proving myself to be good at teaching as well. I just have to be patient and let things unfold.

My Grandmother’s Memoir

I want to share with you all something that I will treasure forever. I only have one grandparent left who is still with us, my paternal grandmother Esther Francis Saunders (she goes by “Joy”). I don’t know how much longer she will be with us, which is why over a year ago, I sent her an email asking if she could write a short memoir of her life. I knew that in the 26 years I had known her, she would often talk about her life when my family came to visit her. She replied that she would be happy to do so and has since given it to me. I thought it would be wonderful to share it with you here. I loved that she did this, it is like owning a memory of her life that I will keep forever. I particularly like that I’m now living in a place that she was just a few years younger than I am now: Kitchener, Waterloo in Ontario.

Despite the fact that she will be turning 98 this Halloween, she still lives on her own in a two-storey house and helps out with what she still can in the community. She truly inspires me. Throughout the time I have known her I’ve also appreciated just how many pets she has had. She has had several golden retrievers one after another: Nina, Bart, Ginger, and Preyer. Preyer is also still with us. She has also owned two cats both of whom she has outlived: First there was Jack and then after Jack, Luke. I still get to see her on average twice a year when I fly home from school to be with family. She came to both my high school and university graduations along with my other grandmother who was still alive at the time. Like I’ve written before about my maternal grandparents, I have a lot of fond memories of her. When my family came to visit her when I was little, my sister and I used to climb into her bed in the morning and watch cartoons with her. I also remember writing to her, asking for information about my family tree back then as well. She replied specifically to all my questions in a very nice handwritten letter. I also appreciate the beautiful town that is Lunenburg that she chose to live in after my paternal grandfather John Alfred Glover “Jack” Saunders passed away in 1983, five years before I was born (and although I never knew him, I would undoubtedly have had a good relationship with him as well if I had). I dedicate the rest of this post to her memoir, which you are welcome to read:

 

I was born and baptized Esther Frances Armstrong in Limpsfield, Surrey, England on Oct. 31st, 1918, just a few days before the end of the Great War so they called me “Joy” and that’s what I’ve been called ever since.

My Father was in the Canadian Army and was fighting in France. Soon after the war ended we moved back to Ottawa, Canada where I lived for the next 12 years and then moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba where we lived for next six years. This was during the Great Depression, a very hard time with vast unemployment and a terrible drought in the West with dust storms across the Prairies. We were fortunate as my Father, at that time, was a Col. In the Army. He organized soup kitchens for the poor and hungry men would come to the door begging for food or a cup of tea-never money. They would offer to cut your lawn or any job just for something to eat.

In those days women didn’t work so young men couldn’t ask a girl to marry him until he could support her. Sometimes they waited years. Girls had a “Hope chest” where they collected linens and silver etc. for when they did get married. This was all difficult as young people didn’t sleep together until they got married. There was no birth control.

In 1936, we moved to Toronto where a lot of my Mothers family lived. They were rather “high end” and found us a house in Rosedale and immediately made arrangements for me to “a debutant of the season”. I was 17-18. I spent a year going to fabulous parties and balls-just like the movies and ended up going to England a guided trip around Europe. I had a wonderful time and was spoilt to death. When I returned home we had been moved to Montreal. My Father was a Montrealer and perfectly bilingual and they wanted him there to arrange the King and Queen’s visit in 1939. That was George VI and Queen Elizabeth. They went right across Canada by train. My sister, June, I, served tea to the King, Queen at the Chalet on the Mountain. I served the King and had to curtsey at the same time. It was difficult as he was so short. They were charming of course.

In August, 1939, England declared war against Germany and Canada joined them. My Father became a Brig. General and we moved to Ottawa and then to Kingston. The war years brought a complete change in my life style. I had never really done anything useful in my life so I decided it was time. I enlisted in the Canadian Womens Army Corps. Our job was to take the place of men so they could fight. It is very different today as women do everything. I went up to Kitchener, Ontario for my Basic Training and No “Just a minute” or “why”. You just did it! You learned the difference between officers and “other ranks”. At basic training we were all “other ranks”-“Privates.” In spite of all the misery, we all thrived. It was a healthy life-we were up at 6 am-in bed at 9 pm. We exercised all day and, in spite of the meals, we were so hungry, could eat anything.

I was an Officer within a year and life was very different. I began to give orders instead of taking them. I was in charge of 30 girls and all their discipline. If they were late getting in at night, they were AWL (absent without leave) and they were punished. I was stationed in London, Ontario and then Capp Bordon, Ontario, North of Toronto. I had a great time there as we had the same privileges as the male Officers. We shared their dining room and could buy drinks of the bar. It was called “The Officers Mess”. Besides training and work, they had great parities. I fell in love twice!! Then I went overseas to Great Britain. It was towards the end of the war and I was stationed in Yorkshire all the time so saw no bombings. I was at the School of Military Engineering so it was interesting.

I never regretted my war years. It taught me so much. It taught me to obey orders-to live in places I didn’t want to and with people I didn’t like-It was a great experience and made me a better person.

For a young lady who had lived all her life in comparative luxury, it was a strange new world. We were issued a uniform-a skirt as women didn’t wear pants in those days-but we also had pants for training-working out and marching. We had a “Great-coat”, a shoulder bag, and a duffle bag. In Kitchener we moved into a Basic training camp. An “H” hut-2 long buildings with 30 bunks in each and 3 potbellied stoves for warmth. The centre of the H were bathrooms for 60 women. No privacy-8 showers in one room. No doors on the Stalls. I was embarrassed to death. The dining Hall was in a different building-we were issued a tin plate, a mug and a knife, fork and spoon, which we washed after every meal and kept with us. The meals were disgusting and the table manners worse as these girls came from all walks of life. My First meal, the girl sitting next to me plunked a piece of apple pie right in the middle of her stew-thought it was delicious. I joined up with 3 friends from Kingston-so when we had a weekend off we went to a Hotel in Waterloo and spent the weekend in the bathtub and eating in the dining room-bliss!

We all went on fire picket-Had to keep the 3 stoves going at all times. We marched miles every day and learned all the commands. The most important thing I learned in the Army was discipline. You followed an order.

When the war ended it was very difficult to adjust to a completely different life. We lived in a large, comfortable home in Kingston, but it was Military Quarters so when my Father retired, he had to moved out. They wanted to live in Ottawa, but housing was impossible, so they stored their furniture and went to Florida for the winter. Unfortunately, when they had only been there for a week, my Father died suddenly from an aneurysm. A terrible shock as he was only 59. Now my Mother and I were homeless. However, my Father’s sister, Mabel Bentham, owned an Apr. Building on Sherbrooke St. in Montreal so we took an Apt. there and I got a job with Joepers, a beautiful women’s clothing store-English. Lovely suits and coats, which I modelled-Having been in uniform for 4 years, I really enjoyed wearing these beautiful clothes. I soon met Jack Saunders, who had just moved to Montreal from Saint John, N.B. where he had been living with my cousin, Jeanne Haycock and her family. He was just retired from the Army too. Was a Capt. with the North Nova Scotia Highlanders. He played an active part in the war, fought in the Normandy Invasion and helped liberate Holland. He was working in Woolworks Dept. Store in Montreal. Jeanne came for a visit and introduced us. I don’t know whether he fell in love with me or my beautiful Joeper coat! However, love it was, followed my marriage, followed by Heather and then a move to New Waterford, Cape Breton where you father was born Victor John Logie. We gave him all the names not knowing we would have 5 others sons. From there we moved to New Glasgow, N.S. where I had Barry, Geoffrey, Mark, and David-I was a busy girl. Then on to Sydney where I had Jimmie and June and spent the happies years of my life until your Grandfather died in 1983.

We bought our summer home in Margaree Harbour when Jimmie was a baby. That was the best thing we ever did as now seven of my eight children have homes there and enjoy the peace and beauty of that special place. In years to come, I’m sure you and your cousins will continue to go there-Another generation, and then hopefully your children.

After Jack died, I moved to Lunenburg-bringing my old dog, Rob Roy and my old cat, Sam, with me. They are both long gone, but I’ve replaced them often and ended up with Prayer-my 13 year old Golden Retriever. I have spent my years in Lunenburg trying to be useful in some capacity and enjoying this beautiful little town.