I recently wrote in a blog that I call my anxiety, depression and PTSD, the ‘trio of doom’. Because that is what they generally bring when they stop by, a sense of impending doom! Between them I live in a constant whirlwind of emotions as depression wants me to sleep all day and ignore the world but anxiety makes me feel bad about the stuff I should be doing and need to be doing. As for PTSD, it drops by when it feels like it and leaves a wave of panic attack feelings behind and a fair few sleepless nights.
My daughter, Eliza, is ten years old and struggles greatly with anxiety although she’s finding her own ways to take control of it and she pushes her own comfort zones and constantly tests her own bravery levels! She is amazing! For her, she feels ‘naughty butterflies’ in her tummy. That is how she describes her anxiety. And often after a bad anxiety time, her tummy is the thing that hurts her physically – uncomfortable anxiety related pain. She’s able to tell me when she gets that feeling now and on the days she can’t (because anxiety is winning) I’m able to tell by the look on her face and the tone in her voice. And we work through it together.
Anxiety, the biggest liar of all, makes me feel inadequate, worthless and tense. It keeps me awake, makes me pace, makes me overthink and double guess everything. It is bloody exhausting! Depression makes me tired. Simple as that. I struggle to get my backside out of bed some days because it tricks me in to thinking I need to stay there. PTSD – working on it as it’s not as predictable as the other two. I’m finding my own ways to get rid of these uncomfortable feelings, these uninvited ‘guests’ that feed on my happiness and calm.
Art has been an incredible outlet for me. Sketching, painting, digital art. I made a friend a book of sketches about characters and other things from his book. They’re rubbish really but they kept me busy and allowed me to use imagination in my art from one of my favourite novels. I joined an art class that I attend weekly in term time. This was really pushing my own comfort zones knowing I knew nobody there, questioning my skill levels and not to mention the 40 minute drive each way. But I did it and I love it. I start my third set of art classes in September. Painting and sketching allows me to escape the trio of doom as well as releasing my creative side. They offer a chance to focus, to calm and to breath through it all. When my heart starts to beat faster, my palms start to sweat and I’m losing control – I paint!
Despite the struggles with the annoying trio, I’m glad they exist in a way. I keep going. I don’t let them win (often) and they’ve rekindled my long standing love of art and design (to the point I’m doing a degree from October in Design & Innovation). As hard as it is to watch Eliza struggle with anxiety, it’s also made her the strong willed and brave little soul she is today. Sometimes the things that make us incredibly uncomfortable can also make us realise our strength and determination too.
This was a post from ‘Finish the sentence Friday’ group on ‘Uncomfortable’ hosted by the fabulous Kristi from https://findingninee.com/
For those that may not know you, tell us about yourself.
My name’s Chris, and I’m the writer behind Autistic Not Weird (http://autisticnotweird.com), diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome at the age of 25. After I left primary school teaching I launched my website to talk both personally and professionally about autism, and it’s taken off a bit better than expected! Three years on I’ve won three awards for my advocacy and given over fifty autism talks, some internationally (including at Sydney Opera House!). I’m also a special needs tutor, a Boys’ Brigade captain, an enormous chess geek and a soon-to-be-published novelist.
Can you explain why the title has been changed from Guerrillas to Underdogs?
It was a joint decision between myself and the publisher, because it’s far more suited to the themes of the book and its characters. Whereas Guerrillas simply means “we pick up guns and shoot them”, Underdogs alludes to the war their fighting (with odds ridiculously against them), the size and age of their army, and the characters themselves who have grown up being made to believe they’re inferior. And besides, who doesn’t love a good underdog story?
When did you start writing Underdogs and what inspired you to write it?
Underdogs has gone through a bunch of incarnations, but the very, very first draft was in 2010, back when it was named Guerrillas. I wanted to write the ultimate underdog story: a novel series where the good guys were almost mathematically certain to lose, but would fight anyway. Hilariously, writing the book was also a coping mechanism for my unemployment at the time, giving me something to do with my days. It was clearly never going to get published, but that wasn’t the point of it. And now it’s literally being published, with over 400 copies sold already.
Some of the characters are from Special Education. What made you decide to go with this amazing idea?
In 2014 I was working at a special school, and looked at Underdogs again. The thought of having the main characters being teenagers from a special school crossed my mind, and the more I thought about it the more I felt it absolutely had to happen. Not only would it be a unique idea in the dystopia field, but also there’d be major opportunities to discuss important topics. Underdogs would become a novel that would actually have something to say.
There are some powerful messages/life lessons in the story. What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
I don’t want Underdogs to be too preachy: underneath everything else, it’s an intense action novel filled with loveable characters, and as a novel it should be seen that way. With that said, there are massive opportunities to be taken (and a lot of responsibility on my part) to make sure the reader is richer from the experience of reading. I want neurodiverse readers to experience a novel where they can identify with the main characters, and see people similar to them who go through massive challenges due to their conditions but do incredible things anyway. I want neurotypical readers to leave the book with a better understanding of teenagers with special needs: not just what makes them different, but also the largely unspoken common ground they have with other teenagers.
Finally, I want all the book’s readers to gain a little more insight into what happens when those defined by their weaknesses get a chance to play to their strengths.
What themes/genres does Underdogs fit?
Aside from the obvious young adult/dystopia genres, there’s an up and coming genre called “disability-lit”, which Underdogs is perhaps around the edges of.
As for themes… I’d say the big ones are the difficulties of being an underdog (both in the war sense and in the special needs sense, these characters have been raised to believe they’re “inferior” to those they’re fighting to save), and trying to be the best you can be when the world is not on your side.
Is there a certain age range the book is more suitable for?
I’d say “12+”, which obviously is an age range that includes adults. It has that Harry Potter/Hunger Games cross-age-range appeal, written for teenagers but adults are likely to love it just as much. Among its dozen or so beta readers, both teenagers and adults have been equally enthusiastic.
Underdogs is available in paperback and eBook once published. Is there any possibility of an audiobook version?
A lot of people have asked this. Unbound Publishing have told me that it’s rare that they do audiobooks, but they will if the book’s wildly successful and proves that there’s a level of demand for it!
***NOTE TO ADD – AUDIOBOOK IS IN PROGRESS ***
Who is your favourite character in Underdogs and why?
I’d say it’s a tie between Jack, a 17-year-old lad with Asperger’s who understands computers better than people, and Dr McCormick who leads the Underdogs as a calm, guiding force who loves building people. Jack is a loyal, honest (sometimes too honest) young man who helps his friends put things into perspective, and a nice dry sense of humour. McCormick is like Dumbledore and Uncle Iroh from Avatar: The Last Airbender rolled into one, except a mathematics lecturer.
Kate comes close behind though. She suffers massively from anxiety but makes a point of confronting absolutely everything that makes her nervous. She is by far the bravest character in the whole Underdogs universe.
Will there be more Underdogs books to follow?
Oh yes. I’m on book three already! Obviously, the reception to book one will determine whether the publisher will except book two, but going by Underdogs’ performance so far I think we can afford to be optimistic.
As the author, tell everyone why you think the world needs a book like Underdogs.
Because representation matters. Meaningful, accurate representation of neurodiversity in fiction is so rare, and most neurodiverse characters in novels (or movies) are either tokenistic or based on stereotypes. Underdogs, if it performs well, may be a key part in the battle for representation as well as being a heart-pounding action novel in its own right.
Underdogs book 1 is available for purchase from Amazon (UK) inc kindle version. Also available on Waterstones website and Book Depository (Worldwide postage).
Well, I say friends but that’s no longer the case is it? There are still times I think about what used to be, all the amazing times we had and the memories that we made. The excitement of my pregnancy, the tears of joy and happiness when my daughter was born. How we used to love meeting up with you all, we all had babies around the same age. The first couple of years were amazing. We shared some great times. As our babies turned two it was becoming more obvious that my daughter, Eliza, was different somehow. You were all supportive and encouraging. “She’ll talk when she’s ready”, “Maybe she’s just shy” and similar phrases were offered as comfort and reassurance. Our twice weekly meetups continued as well as attending the same baby and toddler groups.
Eliza failed her two-year check that is completed by the Health Visitor to make sure children are reaching the milestones for their expected age range. It was no surprise to me or all of you. Life carried on just fine until the day we all met at the park and I told you that Eliza had been referred to a Paediatrician and that autism had been mentioned as a possible diagnosis. Looking back, the silence and the looks were the start of what happened next but as I felt vulnerable and overwhelmed, I’d assumed you were all surprised by what I’d said. A few days later I tried to arrange a meetup in the park, the sun was out and it was a beautiful day. But you were all busy. I get it, life’s busy. After a few days I noticed the lack of phone calls or texts that used to happen frequently. Again, I tried to set up some play day fun, nobody replied.
One day, on walking home from town, I bumped in to two of you separately. You two changed our lives that day. Friend ‘A’, you asked if we were well as you’d not seen us at a couple of coffee mornings at ‘B’s house and would we be going to so and so’s party at the weekend. It was clear to me that we’d not been invited to a few things. In some ways I didn’t mind, I never expect to be invited to everything. But something about the way you looked at me suggested you knew more than you’d let out so far. As I walked home with a sleepy Eliza in her buggy I bumped in to you. Let’s call you friend ‘C’. You were the one full of sympathy. You were the one telling me how sorry you were that my child wasn’t normal. You did the head tilt to one side accompanied with the “awwww but she looks so normal doesn’t she”. I tried to explain that Eliza was normal thank you very much and that she was just different. Then you said the words that I’ve never forgotten to this day. With your hand on my shoulder, sympathetic eyes staring at me you said “Why don’t you adopt her out and get on with your life….. you can always have another baby”. I never replied to you. I didn’t know how. I felt like my heart stopped beating for a few moments, my breathing slowed as I tried to process your words. My daughter hadn’t even been diagnosed and people were leaving us and telling me to give her away. I remember just walking away from you and looking down at my beautiful child, wondering how anyone could even suggest what you did. After that day pretty much all invitations to meetups stopped coming. Eliza was no longer invited to birthday parties.
I’m going to Fast Forward seven years now and tell you a little of what you’ve missed out on.
Eliza is very academically able and excels in computers, English and Maths.
At 9 years old she reads at age 11-12 years.
She’s learnt to play a brass horn and piano recently and took part in a small concert in assembly.
At 9 years old, she was asked to be an ambassador for a clothing range that promotes Autism Awareness & Acceptance.
She can swim, run, ride a bike, roll down a hill and all the things your kids can do most likely.
Eliza has friends. She loves parties, going to the cinema and theatre. Despite anxiety and living in a judgemental world, she’s finding her place and loving life.
There is so much more you’ve all missed out on and all because you were frightened by a word. Autism. It really isn’t a word to be feared you know. Eliza might be different to your children in some ways but she’s not less of a person because of her diagnosis. If you’d stuck around you’d see the incredible, intelligent, beautiful girl she is. You’d hear her terrible jokes and fall prey to her slightly sarcastic tainted sense of humour. She’d infect you with her big cheesy grin and giggles and she gives the best hugs ever. You’ve missed so much, and you hurt us deeply. I really hope since then that you’ve thought about it and explained what autism is to your children because the likeliness is there will be autistic kids in their classes at school. We’re living a great life without you. It’s just a shame you didn’t stick around to enjoy it with us. I used to feel so much pain when thinking back on those days. But that’s just wasted time in my mind and you don’t deserve to occupy that space any more.
From the friend you deserted & and her awesome daughter
First written on 4th August 2015 & transferred from old blog site
It has been a while since you and I fell out. Today you made me angry even though I was not your target. You see my daughter is 6 and she is autistic. It makes her day to day life extremely hard at times as she attempts to navigate a crazy world and find her place in it. It’s not helpful when you come along and add to the mounting stress she feels. I know you often tag along with your friend autism, you seem to be closely connected.
We had a lovely play date arranged with some close friends in a park we often visit. The school holidays throw her out of her comfort zone but she copes really well with planning. It should have been a lovely day. Plan we did, prompt we did, talk it through and off we went. Some days there just isn’t enough planning in the world, you just seem to grab her regardless. My beautiful girl was crying, screaming and kicking the seat in the car. She hit her little brother, she threw stuff she could get hold of. Refusing to get out of the car we sat there, her crying and her brother unsure whilst I decided on the next best step for all concerned. You had her, you were winning.
I wanted to yell and scream at you Anxiety. I really did. I wanted to rip you out of my daughter and stamp on you a million times for what you do to her. I wanted to swear at you and boy did I have some select words just for you. I wanted to cry, truth be told, because I am exhausted, overwhelmed and often feel out of my depth trying to do what is best for her. Trying, as a parent, to make her world as easy and understandable as I can whilst at the same time keeping her safe. I have to think with/about/for her 24/7 and when you decide to stop by it is a hundred times worse because she becomes ‘flighty’. Likely to run at any given chance and with her lack of danger awareness, it is bloody scary.
Instead I wish to thank you, Anxiety. You see every time something like this happens it makes me a stronger parent, ready to face you the next time you decide to gatecrash our lives. You know what else? With my help (and maybe a little stubborn attitude) she got out of the car. She had a few moments on the floor waving and kicking her arms in the air and I let her. Why? Because she was releasing you. She was angry at the feelings she was having. Deep down she wanted to see her friends, to go on the swings, to eat the picnic we took with us. After she started to calm I bent down and gave her a choice – go to the play day or get back in the car and go home. I was calm and fair, she knew either would be OK with me and do you know what, she chose the play day and after a few more minutes calming she had a great time. It was a lovely day after all. You are a pain in the backside Anxiety and believe me when I say I HATE you, I really mean it.
Thank you for attempting to take my daughter down today, you have shown me even at the age of 6 she isn’t going to let you win. She made a choice to put you to one side, remind you that you don’t get to rule her life. She was able to release her feelings safely inside my car and make a decision to keep going. I would say better luck next time but that just suggests I offer you seat on our next day out so instead I will just bid you farewell for today but no doubt you will be back at some point. We will of course be ready for you every time.
There are four of us living in this house. I used to say three of us as we are the ‘physical’ ones but we seem to have an extra one here a lot of the time. Yes, there is myself, Eliza (9), Noah (4) and anxiety (the uninvited and invisible guest that randomly becomes visible, usually at times when you wish it would just bugger off). This year has been a bit rocky, my own anxiety took control over me earlier in the year for a while but I’m starting to feel like me again and that I’m now back in control. Eliza’s anxiety is usually around social situations, especially in unfamiliar environments but there are random times it just consumes her as if it’s just reminding her it exists. For nine years of age, she handles her emotions pretty well and refuses to crumble when it makes an appearance. It can be tricky in our house, Eliza and I can either bounce off each others anxiety and get by or we can feed off each others anxiety and have a day where we need a little space from each other or more structured days where we both have the same agenda as much as possible.
Eliza wasn’t always anxious, she was quite an independent, feisty and confident child. Until regression dropped by (another uninvited but slightly more visible guest) and took away her speech, some of her fine motor skills and reversed a lot of her skills in general. She had to relearn how to hold a spoon, how to hold a pen and draw but most of all she had to learn to be Eliza again but without her words and that made her extremely angry and frustrated. We relied on Makaton sign language for communication and through this she started to make sounds with certain words that she signed and she’d often sit in the corner of the room with her cuddly toys, whispering the noises or letters she could say as if she was practising what she had gained back speech wise. It took a few years for her speech to return enough for the pediatrician and speech therapist to stop documenting her as a ‘non-verbal’ child. I can remember on a few occasions that if she pronounced a word slightly wrong it really made her anxious. She’d be very cross with herself and get upset. A year ago she watched a video of herself when she was younger. She was signing animal names and making the noises that they make. Back then she had around 10 spoken words. She looked happy to watch it but anxious and then she told me that she is scared her words will go away again. Sadly nobody has a crystal ball to see whether regression will strike again or something else but she’s doing amazingly well for a girl who had to wait a long time for those words and skills to return.
At the time her speech started to return, her anxiety suddenly rocketed. Everyone assumed that as she began talking again, her anxiety would decrease but it did the opposite. We became quite housebound for over the next year or so outside of school hours. Supermarkets were an absolute no go area, she just couldn’t cope with people, noises, busy places, sounds, smells…. complete sensory overload! Suddenly she couldn’t even face the cinema, soft play, parks, restaurants….. anxiety was taking control. I often used to think that it stemmed from the speech returning, the fear that she’d lose the speech again so she was shutting herself away from the world and guarding what she had taken back from regression. Now she is old enough to talk about it (when she wants to) she was able to give me her own thoughts…. “I didn’t like busy noise…….. too many people……. my words get messy…. they might laugh at me because my words don’t always work…”
That fear and anxiety that people would notice how she said things, how she struggled to pronounce some words. How she needed processing time to answer questions and they might think she’s ignoring them. How she sometimes doesn’t know how to answer so you get a scripted reply from a TV show or a plain yes or no. How they look at her and see a child that is of certain age but her language ability is that of a younger child’s. That pressure to be what other people expected was already taking up space in her mind. Eliza is an extremely intelligent child with a wonderful and adventurous personality but in the past she has often been told she can’t do things by teachers, pediatricians etc. It’s not that she can’t actually do things, it’s that they assume she can’t and therefore don’t even bother giving her a chance. But they tell her she can’t do stuff and that impacts her anxiety and her confidence partly as she’s unsure whether they are correct but also because she feels wronged by their decision. She may well not be able to do whatever it is she wants to try but at least let her try, that’s all she wants. Anxiety and her autism diagnosis were used on more than one occasion by certain people as an excuse to why they made decisions for her instead of with her. Eliza was also bullied for a while, both emotional and physical attacks. Her bully was a huge factor to her increase in anxiety to the point she’d have a panic attack in the car and couldn’t breathe if we even drove near where he was. (And sadly her being bullied was not taken very seriously by school at that time and was pretty much ignored).
Despite anxiety taking control of Eliza a lot of the time, she was still able to do ballet lessons, street dance, trampoline club, Rainbows (part of guides/brownies but for younger girls), after school cooking class and sports group and, possibly the best thing she ever did, equine therapy. So many people wrote her off, used her anxiety and her autism diagnosis as an excuse or simply went ahead and made decisions for her so we found a bunch of people/activities that welcomed her (and her anxiety) and allowed her to be herself and through them she gained confidence, pushed her own social boundaries and comfort zones, learnt social skills and improved her speech. Eliza was changing and finding her place in the world and she was starting to take control of her anxiety.
We moved house a couple of years ago to a different County which meant new area, new people and places, new school…. Lots of preparation went in to the move and she’s really changed since living here. We are lucky to live in an area that is close to a forest so we see lots of wildlife and have plenty of open spaces but we are less than fifteen minutes away from shops and town by car. Her School is amazing and she is thriving there. Reading at age 10-11 years, working hard in all lessons, learning to play a brass horn and the piano, taking part in sporting events and art shows. They just ‘get’ her completely. They support her greatly but they also allow her the independence she needs and most of all, they allow her to be Eliza. She still has anxiety at school although nowhere near as often as she did but she can get past it quicker with their support and understanding, she’s happy and comfortable enough to show them she is anxious but also able to take back control.
The last twelve to eighteen months has held a lot of changes for Eliza. Anxiety remains but rarely gets to show itself as she’s so used to it now, she’s able to distract herself or go have quiet time somewhere. Even on the rare occasion that anxiety starts to control her and she gets quite loud, tearful and stompy, she battles through it and attends whatever it was she was going to anyway. She won’t let anxiety beat her. She’s enjoying trips to the cinema again as well as the theatre for shows and plays. She’s loving being outdoors and has a huge list of places we can go, the boating lake is one of her favourites (which is crazily one of my least favourite places because, well, I just hate boats and lakes/rivers/seas/oceans….. but we go because she likes it there and she’s yet to ask to go on a boat lol). When anxiety does start to niggle at her, you’ll find her at the top of a hill, top of a climbing frame or the highest floor of a building where possible. This is how she copes. She likes the space and the height so she can look at her surroundings and calm down whilst deciding on her next move. Even shopping is back in play although she absolutely detests a couple of places that have very narrow and highly stocked aisles, she has a few she enjoys visiting.
As for me, my anxiety is fairly under control. I still have days where it seems to have a date with depression and they come along in tag team style and kick my arse for a while but I keep going. Therapy has helped and I remain on medication for the time being. I talk to a select couple of close friends about it which helps. I won’t go in to the long story of personal details of what caused my anxiety but I’ll share how it felt. Earlier in the year anxiety took complete control. I was having panic attacks, couldn’t walk in my own town without feeling that my legs were on fire and my vision blurring. I felt sick leaving the house and even going to a friend’s house made my legs shake. Even walking my son in to nursery, I felt like I’d pass out. A heavy-set feeling sat constantly on and in my chest and my heart was racing. I denied it for a while but it persists until it thinks it’s winning. Anxiety, oh how I hate you!
Self care is important, it really is and it’s something I have ignored for far too many years. I’m a masker. I hide behind a smile that is believable but fake. But I got away with it for so long it became the ‘norm’ and I forgot to actually look after myself. Instead, I filed everything in my brain to be sorted another day. But I never sorted it, I just added to it…. and added to it…. and added to it until my brain was full of things that I either didn’t want to think about or didn’t give/have time to think about. I couldn’t hold it in anymore and it was making daily life incredibly difficult. After reading some inspiring words that a friend had written about their past with anxiety, I made myself an appointment with the GP and got the help I needed and had avoided getting for so long. I didn’t want to notice my anxiety, I didn’t want to let it in. But there it was, that uninvited guest booking itself a room in my head. Anxiety wants to win. But I’m not going to let it.
Nowadays it’s a tug of war relationship, some days anxiety slightly leads until I pull it back over the line again. The way I get through it – I keep that hot tingly burning feeling in my feet as much as possible. When my legs start to burn I know anxiety has picked up the tug of war rope and fancies a test of strength. This is when I distract myself and find something to do (walking or rock painting are winners here). If the burning feeling gets above my waist level, it’s time to go home because anxiety is pretty much setting fire to the rope at this point and I’m losing my grip. Sometimes I just need to be home and have that safe ‘made it’ feeling and have a cup of tea. Sometimes I need short nap to regain my energy for the next test and have a cup of tea (Hey, I’m British. It’s what we do. Tea is the answer to everything!).
***This started as a Facebook post here but a few people messaged and asked for it as a blog so here it is***
Recently I ended up in a rather heated discussion in an online parenting support group about autism. In particular the difference between high and low functioning. Now first of all, I’m not a fan of the word ‘functioning’, I detest it but as this quote fit what I was trying to explain at the time (plus some of Eliza’s own paperwork describes her as ‘low functioning’) I’ll use it just to explain my point. The photo below is of Eliza and Chris from Autistic Not Weird. Beautiful photo isn’t it? Eliza’s diagnosis on paper is written as “Autism Spectrum Disorder and moderate-severe learning difficulties”. On more than one report she’s also described as ‘low functioning’. Chris has a diagnosis of Asperger’s (And yes, I have his permission to post this photo etc).
The heated discussion I ended up in was a post about varying levels of autism, where people ‘sit’ on the spectrum as such but a small bunch of individuals were harping on about if you are high functioning you should lose the diagnosis label as you don’t deserve it. One lady in particular, I argued with at great length after she announced on the post that any child or adult that was considered severe autism or low functioning should be institutionalised so the Country could save the “wasted money given to the retards who don’t know what to do with it anyway” (Her words!). I was so angry with the whole conversation. The use of the R word alone was down right degrading and disgusting but to suggest those that are lower functioning should be locked away? And those that are high functioning should no longer be considered autistic?
Every single individual is different. Every single one! But high functioning does not mean that person doesn’t struggle. It does not mean they need no help or support and often they carry on unsupported because they are expected to which is damaging. Have you any idea how hard it is to be pressured in to being ‘normal’ because you are high functioning and that means society assumes you have no troubles or issues? And should you dare to have any issues, it’s assumed that you either need no help or that you are faking it or ‘not that bad’….. Let’s flip to the other side. Low functioning. This does not mean lack of intelligence, lack of understanding or that these children and adults are less than others. Eliza reads older than her years, is learning piano and brass horn, makes hilarious jokes and is very academically able with the correct support in place. But according to that person in the group, we should lock her away because she was discussed in a report as ‘low functioning’?
I’ll stop here because reliving that argument is making me angry and ranty! As much as I detest the word ‘functioning’, this quote sums up what I was trying to get across in that group. But I’ll just add that by no means is Eliza ‘low functioning’. It was a term used by certain individuals who chose to write her off at a young age rather than wait and see exactly what she was capable of.