Book Review: ‘Odd Girl Out’

 

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‘Odd Girl Out’ is a book by the lovely Laura James. Laura is an author and a journalist (and the owner of a communications agency). She is a mum of four children and lives in North Norfolk, UK. Laura tracks the year of her life in this book after receiving a diagnosis of being autistic from her doctor.

Here is a little synopsis:

What do you do when you wake up in your mid-forties and realise you’ve been living a lie your whole life? Do you tell? Or do you keep it to yourself?

Laura James found out that she was autistic as an adult. Odd Girl Out tracks the year of Laura’s life after she receives a definitive diagnosis from her doctor, as she learns that ‘different’ doesn’t need to mean ‘less’ and how there is a place for all of us, and it’s never too late to find it.

Laura draws on her professional and personal experiences and reflects on her life in the light of her diagnosis, which for her explains some of her differences; why, as a child, she felt happier spinning in circles than standing still and why she has always found it difficult to work in places with a lot of ambient noise.

Although this is a personal story, the book has a wider focus too, exploring reasons for the lower rate of diagnosed autism in women and a wide range of topics including eating disorders and autism, marriage and motherhood.

This memoir gives a timely account from a woman negotiating the autistic spectrum, from a poignant and personal perspective.

Quote from amazon.co.uk

My review:

This book is phenomenal and these are the main reasons why:

  1. Whilst reading it I’ve never felt SO understood.
  2. Laura is very open and forthcoming about her struggles. This is so refreshing.

The book covers Laura’s autism assessment and diagnosis, childhood, teen years and adulthood so far. It’s fascinating to read how Laura was assessed/diagnosed aged 45 and how she has built up so many different coping mechanisms in order to function in a neurotypical world.

Laura’s book also goes into detail about things like relationship struggles and her special interests. This was particularly interesting to read about and it really emphasised how important special interests are to autistic people, and reinforces the point that they should never be denied or taken away from someone.

‘All my life I had tried so hard to be neurotypical, but in that one moment it became utterly clear that I was never going to fit that mould.’ Laura James, The Guardian.

Laura writes about all the daily and mundane things that for some can be such a struggle. Like working in an open plan office. Neurotypical people can deal with this environment okay and sometimes even enjoy being able to talk to people freely around them. For Laura (and me!) it’s nothing short of a bloody nightmare. The sound levels change so frequently that it can be quiet one moment and so loud the next that you can’t think or function properly. Bright strobe office lights can be distracting and too much to bear (and if you haven’t already why not read about my fluorescent jacket troubles in my own office here!). Not to mention the varying smells, people touching you from behind to grab your attention, etc. New experiences really are so overwhelming. This book really will open your eyes to the world around you and make you think twice when you are in these sorts of environments.

The depictions of autism that are mainstream tend to be from things such as: RainmanThe Curious Incident and the Netflix series Atypical. This is all well and good but these films and shows sum up autism to generally be a very male condition when really it’s not at all. Female autism is less documented and understood and I feel that Laura touches on this: a lot of female autistics mimic others around them in things like social situations and are able to get by copying and learning from others behaviours. I think this is why a lot of girls are going undiagnosed for so long. Because we are able to just about manage and put on an act/mimic others to get by okay in life.

A lot of girls are told they ‘don’t seem autistic’. I think this is because we are able to cope on the surface of things and learn behaviours such as keeping good eye contact in order to fit in. It’s all about being able ‘pass’ socially in order to stay under the radar and seem ‘normal’. That’s pretty awful don’t you think? I constantly have to push myself into new situations that I don’t want to do and can’t cope with just to seem like I am normal. Then I can have meltdowns before and after these because it requires so much of my energy and is so hard sensory-wise.

It’s obviously slightly tricky to write a book review as I don’t want to giveaway large sections of what happens because people might want to read it!

I do just want to mention a couple of things. This book was a bit hard to read. I don’t mean this in a bad way at all – it was always going to be difficult to read a book on someone else’s life especially if they struggle with the same things as me (or you). I found that a lot of the autism and sensory parts of the book made me upset / triggered bad thoughts and feelings. This did not put me off and should not put you off either. I think I just resonated with a few of Laura’s struggles so much that I couldn’t help but feel upset but also relieved all at the same time. And yes, I cried through parts of this book. I’ve only admitted that to be honest, because so many things Laura mentioned echoed my own struggles.

The one other thing to mention is that the book can be slightly hard to follow at certain points as Laura jumps back and forth from her childhood memories/life to the present day but this might just be a dyslexic thing I struggle to keep track of!

I’m going to admit to something that you’ve probably already guessed by reading my blog. I have always been the Odd Girl Out. Throughout my life I have constantly struggled with the seemingly normal and mundane things through childhood to my current early adulthood. I hate all the things that neurotypical and young adults seem to love doing like: going to loud places, loud music, meeting up with friends, going to new places, parties in general, restaurants, going on holiday, buying new clothes, drinking alcohol, going to super bright or colourful environments, trying new food, travelling…look the list is actually never-ending. The point I’m getting at is…this book made me feel less alone. I know that sentence is a little bit sad, but it’s true. Because having these struggles all the time is very (very) tiring and nobody else truly seems to understand me (apart from my mum!) or what really goes on in my head. This book gives me just a bit of hope for the future.

I have passed this book onto my mum who is currently reading it. I really think the book gives such an insight into what goes in Laura’s mind and highlights what other autistic people struggle with everyday.

So how would I sum this book up?

Laura learns that ‘different’ doesn’t need to mean ‘less’ and how there is a place for all of us, and it’s never too late to find it.

Conclusion: If you can, you have to read this book (no matter who you are!)

Read an extract of the book here

Read an article Laura wrote for The Guardian (UK) here

Buy the book here: UK / US / Rest of the world

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A little (but important) Q&A

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Since my last post I have had a couple of questions in my blog comments which I thought I would answer in a blog post:

Are you autistic, I thought you had SPD?

Okay so here’s the thing. I was diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) aged 8.

Over the years I think I have slowly come to the realisation that I might be autistic as I have a lot of little traits and sort of signs that point towards it. Many autistic people struggle with sensory issues but I’d never really thought about it the other way round – what if people (like me) with sensory issues actually sit somewhere on the autistic spectrum…?

Here are some traits that I or others have noticed in myself:

  • I have a very literal understanding of language and find jokes and sarcasm hard to understand.
  • The world can seem a very unpredictable and confusing place and I prefer to have a daily routine so I know what to expect each day. I hate change / new things and always react badly to them. I can cope better if I can prepare for changes in advance. For example: I would happily eat the same things everyday if I could and I always found it difficult to move from one school to another and onto university.
  • I find holidays or anytime off work very difficult and upsetting. I have to make routines and to-do lists to form a sort of schedule to live from.
  • I experience over sensitivity to sounds, touch, tastes, smells, light, colours, temperatures and pain. This is referred to as sensory sensitivity.
  • I am often unable to understand and express my own needs and become upset and overwhelmed very easily.
  • Autistic people often have repetitive and restricted interests. I find I am specifically drawn to (and love) police/crime/medical documentaries and TV shows (I even did my uni dissertation on UK policing!).
  • I seek out time alone when overloaded by other people. I find social situations an absolute nightmare. I try desperately to fit in and have a ‘fight or flight’ reaction to them.

(This list goes on and I have left off some more private/personal problems I struggle with that I am not comfortable listing on the internet!)

I have recently seen a psychologist who believes I am autistic and that I do have autistic traits. She feels I would sit somewhere on the autistic spectrum and encouraged me to go forward for a formal diagnosis. I have recently been contemplating whether it would be beneficial or not for me to be assessed but as the NHS waiting list is months long I would have to pay privately for this.

There are a lot of self-diagnosed autistic people out there. And I think for the time being I might be one of them. Autism really sums up my difficulties well into one easy to say ‘label’. I realise this may sound bad, but I don’t want it to come across that way.  Saying ‘I am autistic’ really helps me to explain my difficulties to other people quickly without explaining all my sensory and daily living problems.

Hi. Do you think you could do a post on occupational therapy? 🙂

Of course! Sorry if it seems like I’m rambling:

I’ve tried lots of different therapies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and therapy sessions with CAMHS (child and adolescent mental health service, NHS, UK) however I found these unhelpful and these made me feel worse. I have found Occupational Therapy (OT) to be the most helpful form of therapy.

The main problem I find is that UK doctors are not very clued up when it comes to sensory problems. This is a real shame – although some doctors are fab. I was referred to an Occupational Therapist as a child which was when I was diagnosed as having SPD. OT referrals are only offered to babies and young children in the UK and the service seems to stop as soon as you get any older. Once you are a teen/young adult/adult you only seem to be offered talking therapies like CBT.

I have seen an OT privately before (although this can be expensive it was definitely beneficial). The main thing my Occupational Therapist taught me when I was a child were fine motor skills like being able to cut with scissors, grip a pen/pencil, etc.

However the main thing OT’s focus on is this: de-sensitisation. It’s all about slowly learning to de-sensitise yourself to sensations you find hard – like touch. I was taught about body brushing. I totally recommend looking up something called the Wilbarger Protocol (a form of Brushing Therapy) you can read about it here. It’s a brushing therapy that helps people desensitise their body (that you can do at home) – also the brush can be bought online through Amazon and isn’t expensive! You should ideally do this under the supervision of an OT to make sure you are using the right technique but these instructions are helpful if you want to try it out for yourself.

I used to find it incredibly difficult to brush my hair and teeth. Although I still absolutely hate brushing my teeth I am able to withstand the vibrating motion of an electric toothbrush in my hand which is great as I now my brush my teeth much better even if the sensation is still quite tricky. I am also able to brush my hair – I apply a firm/heavy amount of pressure which really helps me.

Also I totally recommend reading the book ‘Too Loud Too Bright Too Fast Too Tight’ by Sharon Heller

I recommend also looking up Sensory diets (and weighted blankets!) and reading my posts here about how these have helped me:

Do feel free to continue to ask questions in the comments of my blog and I will always try to answer them as best as I can. 

Hello to you 👋

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Hello to you – I’ve recently had an influx of lovely new followers here on my blog and on my Instagram page! So I thought why not give everyone a little intro (or refresh!) on who I am and why I blog about sensory stuff. To me there is no better way then a good old-fashioned drawing to explain a bit about myself!

Summary of my drawings in text:

  1. I’m Emily, I am 23 years old and I work as a Creative Designer.
  2. I have Sensory Processing Disorder: a neurological disorder that (put simply) makes it hard to receive information to my brain. SPD is a neurological traffic jam and info I receive through my 5 senses doesn’t get organised or detected properly. This means my 5 senses are constantly overwhelmed and overworked so the world is a sensory place for me. SPD creates challenges in my everyday living and performing tasks. I was assessed / diagnosed with SPD aged 8 by an Occupational Therapist (OT).
  3. SPD described in a sentence: It’s like receiving every sense all at once: touch, taste, sight, smell and sound!
  4. I was 21 when I began blogging – hence the name ’21andsensory’. I decided to start documenting my sensory life right here on this very blog. I share tips, tricks, experiences, reviews and much more!
  5. I also experience/have/suffer from: anxiety, dyslexia, mild OCD and hyperhydrosis (excessive sweating and flushing)
  6. I even have my own sensory podcast…! You can have a listen here if you like. Also available through Apple Podcasts and Google Play.

So yup that’s me in a nutshell.

Blogging as a sensory-being in a super-sensory world!

Documentary Review: Aspergers & Me

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A couple of weeks ago I sat down to watch a documentary called ‘Aspergers and Me’ and I found it very thought (and feeling) provoking. I wanted to write a little review of it here on my blog to share with others…

The documentary follows a man called Chris who happens to be a BBC wildlife presenter. So here’s a little introduction to him:

“For most of his life, broadcaster and naturalist Chris Packham didn’t tell anyone about the one thing that in many ways has defined his entire existence. Chris is autistic – he has Asperger’s Syndrome, which means he struggles in social situations, has difficulty with human relationships, and is, by his own admission, “a little bit weird”. (BBC Media Centre, 2017)

Like 700,000 or so others in the UK, Chris Packham is autistic – he has a developmental disability affecting how he relates to other people, and also how he experiences the world. Specifically he has Asperger’s syndrome. His documentary invites us inside his autistic world to try to show what it’s really like being him. He lives alone in the woods with his ‘best friend’ who is called Scratchy. Scratchy is THE CUTEST dog; but Chris also has a long-term partner, Charlotte, who discusses the problems Asperger’s creates in their relationship – she describes Chris as being sometimes “like an alien”.

Chris experiences the world in a very different way, with heightened senses that can be very overwhelming. He grew up at a time when little was known about autism. Chris wasn’t diagnosed with Asperger’s until he was in his 40’s.

However with todays modern and scientific advances new possibilities are being offered to treat his condition. In the documentary Chris travels to America to witness new and quite radical therapies that seem to offer the possibility of entirely eradicating autistic traits. On the flip side of this Chris also meets those who are challenging the idea that autistic people need to change in order to fit into society. He visits one of many special schools in the U.S where children undergo repeated behaviour modification, in order to try to make them more normal. This makes for uncomfortable viewing.

Chris continues his travels, this time to Silicon Valley, one of the places where people with autistic traits are making massive contributions. Tech companies are slowly breaking the stigma and learning about untapped talent of autistic people. These people who are considered and often referred to as weird, geeky or lonely are starting to run the world.

Chris ultimately explores the question of whether he’d ever want to be cured himself, or whether Asperger’s has helped make him who he is today…

Would he ever choose to be ‘normal’?

“I’m anything but normal,” he agrees, staring at the floor. “I experience the world in hyper-reality. Sensory overload is a constant distraction. I’ve just been for a walk in the woods, and it was very different for me than it would be for you – the sights, the smells, the sounds.” He frowns, and glances at his partner, 41-year-old Charlotte Corney. “But we need to go to the supermarket later, and I’ll do anything to get out of it because supermarkets are a swamping of the senses. The lighting is hideous, it’s crowded, and the complex of smells is overwhelming.”                                                   (Chris Packham, Radio Times, 2017)

He is very good at getting across some idea of what it’s like to have a brain that is different, the sensory overload he experiences, sounds, smells and tastes. But what if there was a way of taking away these autistic traits?

“If there were a cure for Asperger’s, I don’t know if I’d want it. Humanity has prospered because of people with autistic traits. Without them, we wouldn’t have put man on the Moon or be running software programs. If we wiped out all the autistic people on the planet, I don’t know how much longer the human race would last.” (Chris Packham, Radio Times, 2017)

That’s the key, Chris says: not trying to change people, but learning to better understand and adapting to accommodate them. And, with this awesome and insightful documentary, he is really doing something to help with that.

The documentary was first aired (UK) on BBC Two, Tuesday 17th October at 9pm.

Book Review: ‘Almost Adulting’

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So you may have heard my recent check in via the app Anchor (if you haven’t it’s a podcasting app for mobile – I’m going to be doing more recording of my sensory experiences and advice on it, scroll down my blog for the post I did!) anyway on my latest podcast I mentioned that I was going to be doing a book review soon on my blog and I mentioned how I think it might be helpful for others to read too!

So as you’ve probably seen by the heading (and the shiny image above) the book is called ‘Almost Adulting’ and it’s by a super lovely lady called Arden Rose. She is an Actress, Producer, Comedian, YouTuber and now a published author as well!

So Arden’s book centres around how to survive your future adulthood. This is written in the form of  journal-like-sections relating to different topics such as:

  • Self-Care (think eating well, washing regularly, making time for yourself to unwind and de-stress)
  • Making internet friends
  • Dating and Relationships
  • Clothing and how to dress on a budget
  • How to travel alone
  • Moving out and decorating your new space
  • Going on adventures and making the most of life

Arden documents her own struggle with OCD in the form of trichotillomania. Trich is defined as having a compulsive need to pick out or pull out your hair. At the age of 13 Arden realised that after pulling out all her eyelashes and eyebrows she was struggling with Trich and needed help. It became a habit for her in times of stress and she started as a freshman at high school with carefully drawn eyebrows and a cover-up coat of eyeliner. I won’t mention anymore because the book explains it much better than I ever could but the way she copes and distracts herself with other mechanisms definitely makes this book a worthwhile read.

I really do recommend it especially to teenagers as it does give you a heads up of things to come later on in life but even as a 23-year-old I found it useful (I don’t feel like I’m an adult yet but all the little adult things I find myself doing add up I guess.)

The book involves a real mix of essay-like chapters, great advice in the form of motivational lists and also features a lot of quirky illustrations. Arden writes in a very open and honest way which is enlightening but also put me at ease – it’s hard to do adult things all the time!

After reading this book I felt kind of more content because it occurred to me that adulthood creeps up on us all. And nobody knows what on earth to do in the start. It’s all about practice and challenging yourself to go out into the big wide world (and trying to keep up with all the bills, chores and socialising at the same time!).

Image credit: Carolyn Suzuki (whose awesome illustrations are on the cover!)

My zen garden experience ⛩

Today I visited a Japanese Zen Garden and thought I would document my experience there! It was a very quiet and calming place with lots of bamboo, wildflowers, wooden decking, carved benches and waterfalls.

There was a huge zen garden with tiny pebbles that could be raked into different patterns and a viewing deck to look out from. Large wind chimes kept blowing in the breeze and being shaken gently by visitors as they went past them. There was a smooth lake with huge Koi Carp fishes swimming just beneath the surface (although they seemed to like to hide under the bridge!)

Overall it was a super peaceful and calming experience and I could have quite happily have sat in the garden for a while longer if it hadn’t been raining a lot on and off here!

Where is your nearest calm spot to walk or sit in? Is it your own garden? A public play area, field, garden centre, allotment, beach, etc? Comment below with the place or space that brings you the most calm. Also feel free to comment below any questions you might have for my up and coming Sensory Q&A blog post – thanks!

Filmed using an iPhone 6S and edited using Instagram Stories: 📸​​ @21andsensory