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

Archive for the ‘Social Gatherings’ Category

My Elora Quarry Social Experiment

In my last post, I talked about how being in a social anxiety therapy group helped combat social anxiety, especially through in-group behavioural experiments that really motivated me to continue doing behavioural experiments on my own. Last week, however, it really motivated me to do something that I never considered before.

A little over 30 km to the north-east of Kitchener-Waterloo, there is this beautiful town called Elora. A few years ago, a friend had informed me about it along with its beautiful gorge The Elora Gorge. The gorge runs up to the town with gorgeous cliff walls with the Grand River flowing through it. There are also a few hiking trails along the gorge, as well as tubing. I’ve never done the tubing, but I’ve walked along the trails several times. Besides the gorge, however, the town is also home to the Elora Quarry, which is a beautiful quarry with limestone cliff walls with a lake inside it. Next to the lake is a small sandy beach and, like the Elora Gorge, the Elora Quarry is a very popular location. Like the gorge, I’ve also been to the quarry a few times before and I’m always happy to spend a bit of time there with friends.

Before last week, I hadn’t been to the Elora Quarry yet this summer. It seemed everyone was always too busy to go, which is understandable, life does get overly busy sometimes, otherwise I would’ve made my last post a lot sooner. As well, not being able to drive always presented a bit of an obstacle in getting to Elora; it was always just a little out of reach by bicycle. One solution I did find to the distance obstacle, however, was by taking GRT (Grand River Transit) buses to a small town called Elmira, which is a little north of Waterloo and from there it would be a 20 km bicycle ride to Elora. The GRT bus service is fortunately free for Waterloo and Laurier students (or at least the bus pass is automatically included in our university fees).

While I have used such a method to visit to the Elora Gorge alone before, I never visited the Elora Quarry alone before last week. But summertime was running out, and I really wanted to go. Well, how about if I go there alone by bussing to Elmira, then bicycling to Elora and once there just locking my bicycle to a sturdy-enough tree? And once I was at the beach I would just try to socialise with strangers and go swimming with them? I have to say I’ve never really considered this solution before mainly because it totally overwhelmed me with anxiety. It seemed like such a high price to pay, spending two and a half hours journeying to the quarry with no guarantee that I would find people to be with there. But that’s exactly what I did last week.

I prepared to go early in the morning. I saw an article that the Elora Quarry was such an incredibly popular place that there had been a cap put in place of 1300 people and that no one would gain entry after this cap was reached! (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/kitchener-waterloo/elora-quarry-number-of-visitors-limit-grand-river-conservation-authority-1.4231946) I have to admit I wasn’t overly surprised to read this news. Like I said the quarry is very scenic, and the times that I visited there before it took us several minutes (maybe even half an hour) to gain entry and the beach was always crowded. Because of this news, I decided I would go during a weekday when hopefully this would be less of a problem. Not only that, but I would arrange to get there at the start of the day. I didn’t want to venture out all that way only to have to turn around again because the cap of 1300 people had been reached.

So I got up early Monday morning. I put on my bathing suit at my apartment and wore shorts over it. I packed a towel, sunscreen, and lunch into my bag and left at 8 o’clock. I reached the quarry at about 10:30, even though the quarry didn’t open until 11 on weekdays. I was actually the first one at the gate, but soon after that cars began parading behind me on the shoulder of the road and at 11 we were all let in. There was a strong fence running around the quarry, which I locked my bicycle to and then I walked down to the beach.

At first I lay on my towel for a bit enjoying the feel of the sand and sun. As more people flooded onto the beach, there were quite a few young people around, but my anxiety always seemed to overwhelm me about approaching them. Then I started casually strolling around the beach and saw three guys tossing a volleyball around. I thought introducing myself into an activity would be less scary than simply walking over to other people were just socialising because we had an activity to occupy ourselves with. So I asked if I could join in and they consented and we spent a bit of time tossing the volleyball amongst each other. Afterwards, they went back to their beach towels, and I thought it would be a good time to ask if I could join them on the beach. I introduced myself and asked if I could join them, and one of them replied, “You might as well.” We even went into the lake together after that and swam around for a bit. I couldn’t believe it. Not only had I gotten to the Elora Quarry, but I was now having fun playing volleyball, lying around, and swimming with a group of great guys.

In the middle of the afternoon, however, they announced that they were leaving so we said our goodbyes and they left. I could’ve left then too, but I decided to stay a little longer. That was one advantage of going alone to the quarry. I could stay for as long as I wanted, as I wasn’t depending on anyone to drive me back. I could easily get back to Kitchener by bicycle and bus.

Anyway, after they left I began searching for another group of people to talk to. This was when unfortunately I encountered a couple of minor fails. For example, I saw a group of guys playing with some kind of ball and a net. Again I asked to join, but they announced you needed an even number of people to play because they had divided up into teams. After such failed attempts, however, I did manage to find a group of people kicking a soccer ball around. Again I asked if I could join in and this time I got a positive response. I joined them afterwards sitting on the beach after introducing myself to them.

After this second group announced they were leaving, it was getting to be pretty late in the day. It was coming up to 5 o’clock so I had spent almost six hours at the quarry! It was a long trip home. So I packed up and rode my bicycle to St. Jacob’s, which a little town between Waterloo and Elmira where I ate out to reward myself for what I had just accomplished. I then continued to ride my bicycle to Waterloo, but by then I was pretty tired and at which point I took the bus back to Kitchener.

I was pretty pleased with how the day had gone. I will admit there were a few things that I thought could have gone better, for example, not hesitating so much in talking to people, but given that this is the first I’ve done a trip like this, I suspect this hesitation will decrease the more I do it. Not only did I get to visit the quarry after all this summer, but I managed to do it in a way that provided very good therapy for my social anxiety. And it gives me hope of what I can continue to accomplish into the future.

 

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New Therapy for Social Anxiety

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.

 

Being an Atypical Extrovert

I sometimes surprise myself when doing some self-reflecting into who I really am and how I would characterise myself. One thing that I discovered really only now about myself is that I am an extrovert. In the past, I never really associated myself with that term despite knowing about the terms introvert and extrovert for over six years. In fact, when I first heard of the terms, I immediately went for the term introvert. And until about a month ago, I never really about it further until I made comment to my family about it to which my mother said, “No, I think you’re an extrovert.” I believe this is because I’m a rather atypical extrovert.

I first heard the terms when I was in the middle of my undergrad at Acadia. I was discussing with a counselor I was seeing then about my difficulties in social interaction, which brought about. I forget the original definitions we used for introvert and extrovert, but whatever they were they led me to believe that I was an introvert. This was probably because I have a few qualities that introverts typically possess. For example, I tend to think before I speak and I like to work on my academic work alone with few interruptions. I think I made the error that introversion and extroversion rely heavily on how one behaves when alone or with other people. In my mind, I was thinking “this person talks a lot so they’re an extrovert” or “this person talks very little so they’re an introvert”. It really only dawned on me now that, while that reasoning may be true in many if not most cases, neither implication is true. It’s very possible to be a quiet extrovert or a loud introvert. They aren’t oxymorons.

For example, (as in my case) a person who is quieter than average isn’t necessarily quieter by choice. Due to other characteristics they possess, they find being quiet easier, more comfortable, more convenient, etc. I’ve discovered this is the case for me. I’m not as loud spoken as a lot of extroverts are, but this is due to circumstances that are quite challenging for me to control if not out of my control altogether. I didn’t choose to have a different perspective when it comes to socializing due to my autism (not saying that’s a bad thing!), or to be shyer than other extroverts, or to have social anxiety. I will admit I often get envious and even jealous of extroverts who don’t have these roadblocks in the way and who follow their natural desires without showing much sweat. However, I am taking steps to address such things, which I will tell about in a future blog post.

Trust me, if it weren’t for these things, and I believe I would be striking up conversations with people (new and old) every which way I turn at social gatherings, striving more forcefully for attention and to be in the spotlight and trying to be the life of every party. Since coming to this realization, I’ve done some research on the internet to see if anyone felt the same way. It turns out quite a few people do. Physical behaviours actually have very little to do with where you are on the introvert/extrovert spectrum. What really defines introversion and extroversion is your natural preference.

In growing up, I was always known in school for being the quiet one and even I was convinced then that my desire was to be in solitude. It’s difficult to distinguish what you want to do and what you find easy to do when you’re still growing up. I was always an extrovert. It just was (and still is) easier to act more introverted than I actually am.

Getting out of my own “Head Space”

Back in January, I failed my first PhD comprehensive exam. I already wrote a post about this and how I was strategizing on preparing myself for the next exam and my next attempt at at the January one. My preparation for my next comp continues to go well so I’ll have to wait to see what happens. One of things that I thought was contributing to my failure was academic anxiety, especially exam anxiety. As such, I made contact with a psychologist in the area to see if he could help with this issue. I’ve had two sessions with him so far and I’m very much happy with the progress I’ve made (and not just for academic reasons either).
Our first session together went well enough. We spent about half of it just him getting to know me and then we began strategizing about how to lower the anxiety, such as learning how to replace negative thoughts such as “What if I get kicked out of the program?” with thoughts like, “I know I’m smart, I can do this work” and to talk with someone right before the exams to come whose voice would help calm my nerves (I have at least a couple of people in mind).
At the second session, things went a little differently than what I had expected. I thought that we would just strategize more about how to overcome my exam anxiety, but at the beginning we somewhat shifted gears. I brought up my social life with him as it was one of the last things we had discussed at the first session and one of things that can impact good academic performance. Of course, I had told him already at the first session about my autism and how it impacts my social life. He then passed a little booklet to me, which was a photocopy of half of a real book. It was called “A survival guide for people with Asperger syndrome” and was by Marc Segar (who I was told has Asperger’s himself).
He gave a copy to me and we looked inside. There were headings on the pages and after each heading, several bullet points after each was sentence or several sentences. One of the first pages was titled Worrying, which was certainly appropriate given the context. The first bullet point was:
One thing autistic people are often good at is worrying.
Another read:
Another problem you might face is that achieving things by half does not feel like enough. You may be an all or nothing person but remember, this might be the autism speaking.
Well, what do you know, my autism itself might have more of a role in all this, than I had previously thought. There were several other bullet points that I could certainly relate to. We talked about both of these, which certainly made me feel better. Then we looked inside the book some more. One other point that I could definitely relate to was under a subheading called “General Knowledge”. It was about how general everyday knowledge can be very challenging for someone with autism to obtain. One of the bullet points that I could relate to was the following:
Getting absorbed into one’s own head-space every other moment can make it extremely difficult to “learn things on the trot” which is the way most non-autistic people are used to doing it.
It certainly made sense to me. I have to admit that the way my own thoughts come and go throughout the day are very much thoughts in my own head-space. I find it quite challenging to focus, without at least one “head-space thought” pass through my mind and distract me every few seconds. When I’m learning things on my own through my own motivation, such as reading a book, my “own headspace thoughts” do come and go every few seconds, but the fact that I’m motivated to actually learn what I’m trying to learn and the fact that I can learn it at my own pace accommodates this self-absorption.
Unfortunately, such accommodations don’t come with everyday social interaction or any other situation where you have to “learn things on the trot”.
So we talked about this as well and way to learn things about the “outside world” and paying attention to the outside world, which would contribute to a more enjoyable social life. One of the exercises that I was given at the end of the second session was to be part of conversations, but to now contribute anything for the first few moments, but to simply listen and then join in later. He was offered the encouraging words that it would get better soon the more times I practised. After I had left the psychologist’s office I knew that the successful of my social interactions depended greatly on my ability to not let my own thoughts consume me. So I came up with a supplementary exercise for myself. Besides, listening in on conversations where I was part of a group, that evening, I would actually write down as much as I could about what I had listened to this day. I hoped that this exercise of my own would motivate me enough to be able to keep my own thoughts at bay.
Well, I’ve done that exercise for about a week now. I’m as of yet not talking any more in these conversations than I previously did, but I am keeping my own thoughts at bay thought both the psychologist’s and my own exercises. I’ve written up more than half a computer page single spaced each time I’ve actually gone through my own exercise. My own “head space” thoughts do keep coming up when I’m with others, but with less intensity. It also helps to say in my head, ““Not now. You can think about your thoughts in your own head space later when you’re alone.” I believe I’ve created a healthy social program for myself and that I can pass on to others (for example, the members of my Waterloo Autism/Asperger’s Support Group).
In way, I can’t but feel somewhat grateful now for failing that comprehensive exam back in January. It brought out ways to further improve myself not just academically, but socially as well (and the two are certainly very much dependent on each other).

A Helpful Social Resource

I have posted a lot in this blog already about my difficulties and overcomings with regards to social interaction; especially given it’s this area of life that autism has affected my life in the most and probably the defining feature of the disorder itself. I am yet again dedicating another post to describing a further development in my life with respect to this.

I recently started looking around again for resources to describe any new strategies I might employ or anything else I would find helpful. That’s when I found this interesting website written by someone with Asperger’s, the link being:

www.improveyoursocialskills.com.

I started going through the pages and I must say I was really impressed. Here was someone with Asperger’s who had not only gone around mapping out the territory of the social world, but had done so on an incredibly thorough basis and had written it up on it in such an explicit way that would be useful to others who have autism/Asperger’s.

For example, I really liked how he described conversations and how he compared it to his “Deli Metaphor” of a sandwich being slid down the table between two people where the person doing the talking was the one who had the sandwich. Also, it looked like he had categorized the process completely. He uses the terms invitation and inspiration to categories two types of responses you can give in conversation and proceeds to categorize the further concept of inspiration!

I seriously felt like I had stumbled upon what looked like the Holy Grail of how socializing works and how both camps (the autistic’s and the non-autistic’s) perceived it. Maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s certainly at the very least an excellent overview of it. None of the advice is really overly complicated, but gets right to the point and is very explicit (and a lot of us autistics love that word!). I have also purchased a the year long membership to gain access since I was so impressed with his advice (only cost $15), and as far as I can tell the author certainly deserves it.

Based on the advice I have gotten over the years I feel like this has to be one of the best things yet. The gap between how the autistic population and the non-autistic population learn social interaction is certainly hard to close, but it’s good to know others too are trying to bridge the gap, while taking into account the needs and desires of those involves whether they be autistic or not autistic.

It is after all one of the chief reasons why I advocate for autism awareness.

Building a Support Group for Students with Autism

Another term of university has passed. And like most of my past university terms, it went great. It was also a special term because it was the first term of my PhD. My two courses I took this term went well and I’ve been studying hard (and continue to study hard and successfully) for my first PhD Comprehensive Exam that will take place this January. And I’ve also found happiness in being in Kitchener-Waterloo for the next four years of my life. Thus I more or less know what will happen in the next four years of my life. It is very nice and really comfortable to be in such a situation (especially after all the trouble I had with grad school to get to this stage)!

One of the advantages of being in a somewhat permanent position like this is that I have the flexibility to plan more long term goals. It is to form a Support Group for Waterloo students with autism and Asperger’s. I took the initiative to start such a group during my Master’s (see Gaining Power). It was put into action nearing the end of my Master’s, which was unfortunately the time I started receiving PhD rejections and as a result, the Disability Office agreed to take over my group as it looked like my time at Waterloo was nearly over. The Disability Office has so far put on occasional social events for the group during the past summer and fall, which I participated in and enjoyed. Since Waterloo has changed their minds and has let me into the PhD and I have taken a term to make sure I’m properly settled I can go back to continue to help students with autism/Asperger’s after all!

Besides social events for this group, I also want support meetings. I would gather our students to talk and release what they are feeling about that particular week and/or ways in which having autism/Asperger’s has impacted us. Earlier this month, I contacted the Disability Office about my plans and they were more than happy to let me carry this out. Likewise I’ve also received a couple of positive replies from the students themselves. So it looks like things are getting set for the new year ahead. And assuming all goes well it will be something I can continue to run at the university for the next four years.

It is my Christmas gift to the Waterloo students with autism and Asperger’s.

Climbing the Social Ladder on a Firm Ground

Two posts ago, I wrote about a new technique I was using to improve my social life. This technique was looking beyond my academic life completely to discover if there were any other social venues outside of my studies that I could use. The main idea behind this was so that I could live a more full-filling life and not have just my academics surround me, which tends to happen in graduate school more so than in undergrad. Beyond the University of Waterloo where I’m doing my PhD, there was a second university in Waterloo that I could use for social outlets, namely Wilfrid Laurier University. I joined some clubs there and I really felt at home there. It was more like my undergrad university Acadia so it was more like what I used to. And even though it’s only been six weeks since that post, I can’t help but announce yet again just how great of a place it has turned out for me and that so far everything about this idea is more than holding up. Having achieved a totally new second life for myself that I love and can easily see that will remain with me for the years to come in my time in Waterloo, I now have a firm standing ground with which to build a social life on. The chessboard is all set up; it is now time to play the game.

I would be lying if I told you I was completely happy at Acadia. I certainly did have a great social network there, but like in all situations, my autism can hinder my efforts. Likewise I knew perfectly well that simply getting involved at Laurier wouldn’t completely solve my problems. I would still need to find ways to work around my autism to achieve a social life to the extent that I desire. It also takes me time to get used to a new place. It took most of a year to get used to both Acadia and U of Waterloo so it’ll take a few more months probably to get fully adjusted to Laurier. However I have certainly developed since my time at Acadia (this blog would have a lot less posts if that weren’t so) and so all the more reason to push forward.

As I’ve elaborated on in one of my earliest posts Speedy Gonzo, one of the ways that autism hinders me is by having a slow reaction time in speech and in face-to-face conversation. This is particularly true in groups. In groups of people, everyone is trying to talk and have no trouble coming up with things to say and thus the speed of the conversation is relatively fast. On the other hand, if I’m only talking to one other person, then this is a little less of a problem because then I only have to concentrate on what one person is saying instead of several and since there are only two of us, there are only two of us to determine the speed of the conversation and so the conversation goes more at my pace. One technique I’ve been using to help resolve this is to think about what I want to talk about ahead of time and brainstorm a few ideas whether it be on paper or just in my head if I’m short on time. By thinking of good topics ahead of time I can formulate ideas of what I want to say and help learning. And this technique I find helps a little. I find it easier to hold a few lines of conversation with someone. Mind you it doesn’t work if you’re with a lot of people or want the conversation to go on for a very long time as you have no idea where it could lead, but for just a few minutes with one other person it actually works. I have a firm footing in an environment I love and have made some promised progress. It feels simply great.