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2020 Vision: My Survival Guide for the Roaring ’20s

Happy New Year and welcome back to the Roaring Twenties! Everyone over to Gatsby’s mansion and we’ll dance the Charleston!

Sorry, I digress … After an extended leave of absence from this blog to focus on my studies, I finally have the most precious resource of time to reflect on everything I’ve gone through these past three or four months, acknowledge both my pride and my thanksgiving for having come through it in one piece and eagerly look ahead to what this new decade promises for me.

The past semester was certainly not without its obstacles, which is only to be expected in the final year of a 4-year degree but for which no amount of preparedness can remove the edge. In facing these challenges head-on, I learned so many invaluable lessons I have every intention of carrying forward to the rest of my studies and life in general. Above all else, I believe I’ve come to understand the autistic aspect of my identity far more intimately than ever before and by getting to know my true self that bit better, I have learned to push my strengths harder and be comfortable enough to know and admit my limitations to myself, thereby giving myself the breathing room I desperately need but rarely allow myself due to my perfectionist tendencies. Anyway, here’s my advice to myself as I start out in what will be by default the defining decade of my life:

 

  1. It isn’t a cop-out to ask for accommodations

As I’ve said many times before, I’m a relentless perfectionist, which alternately works to my advantage and to my detriment. Despite my being registered with my university’s disability services department, I have always stubbornly refused to ask for even the most minor of supports with my autism as the basis. Having gotten by for so long in secondary school with exactly the same opportunities and support my neurotypicals received, getting any kind of help, no matter how small and no matter how desperately needed, somehow felt like cheating and made my conscience uneasy. Any outcome that came of it would feel unearned to me and in truly Irish fashion, I’ve always clung by some force of magnetism to the “no pain, no gain” formula for success. It should hurt, I told myself, that’s how you know you’re doing it right.

I also tend to feel intense guilt when I see former classmates from school working part-time jobs to get them through their degree and managing to keep a hectic social life afloat while I have all the time in the world to focus exclusively on my studies and still manage to experience a paralysis around assignments and coursework which I always mentally translated to inexcusable laziness. I could never study and hold down a job at the same time (at least not with significant time management supports), but there’s no shame in acknowledging the limitations of my executive functioning and thinking better of pursuing a course of action that would likely compromise my mental health and lead to the mother of all burnouts, from which the recovery would be slow and difficult. That isn’t selfish or entitled, as I previously thought – that’s being reflective, sensible and self-aware.

I’m getting to know my limits, making my peace with them and taking ownership of them in the knowledge that asking for accommodations isn’t a cheap excuse or “playing the autism card”, but rather the right thing to do in fairness to myself, who has been stretching herself thin from Day One to meet the same expectations as other students, but with added hurdles which many of these students won’t have to face or even notice. The more I challenge the inner voice that tells me I’m inferior just because I don’t and sometimes can’t always go about things the same way as most of my peers and have a lot of catching up to do in order to be worthy of a decent future, the greater the strides I will make.

 

2.  Never underestimate the power of network and community.

This one is an age-old cliché by now, but by this I mean so much more than exploitative networking to professional ends, but rather emotional and moral support from neurological peers, or as I like to think of them, my “tribe”, in times of strife. I wouldn’t have survived last semester had it not been for the priceless support of the Autistic Paddies, a group for autistic adults founded by the ever-amazing Joan McDonald who continues to be the social genie for Irish autistics by keeping us all connected, be it through the group chat online or regional meet-ups. Among this group’s many incredibly diverse members, many of whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting in person, I’ve always had someone to whom to turn in a crisis and from whom I could expect both immediate, rationally actionable advice and unconditional understanding. Whenever I found myself in sticky situations or unfortunate pickles which couldn’t possibly have been foreseen or helped, the group would be the voice of reason to my panicked, irrational despair and we would always find a way forward together. Conversely, I try to offer advice and emotional support wherever I can when someone else in the group is going through something difficult. The Autistic Paddies are my adopted family and since I was welcomed into the fold early last year, I’ve become prouder and prouder each day to belong to a community which is so centred around mutual support, respect and compassion. Once you’ve found your tribes, things do get a whole lot easier!

 

3. Respect your body – it can do incredible things and deserves proper care.

One of the most harmful consequences of my hyperfocus and my blindness to everything else in my life in the pursuit of perfectionism in my coursework is the toll it can take on my health. This semester, I burned out like I never burned out before and it happened earlier than ever before. Despite this, I ignored every desperate signal my body was giving me to slow down and stop pushing it so hard, which meant it continued to get worse as I graduated from wilful ignorance to genuine distraction. At the end of the semester, I was able to do the unimaginable and plunk down on the couch with the same involuntary vigour with which Donald O’Connor famously collapsed after dancing himself to utter exhaustion on the set of Singin’ in the Rain  – but at what price?

I took a close look at myself for the first time since I started back at college and took quite a fright. My eyes seemed to be dwarfed, whether by the dark, almost charcoal-like lines underneath them or by the sheer strain of intense revision. My complexion was as pale as a sheet while my skin had broken out quite noticeably, making me wonder how long I’d walked around looking this sickly without realising it. If I’d been sick, I was too consumed by the anxiety of falling short on my grades to notice it and that wouldn’t be the first time. After this fright, I thought about all the incredible things the human body can do – heal itself when wounded, restore and regenerate overnight, have just the right amount of everything it needs to keep you going if you give it the food and exercise it needs. It’s a miracle worker and it deserves more respect than I’ve been giving it recently, so I’m learning to check my impulses and refrain from pushing it too hard, which is difficult but necessary. I hope I’ll see the benefit soon!

 

4. Quell the catastrophist in you and pass the mic to the self-assured woman who realises her own value.

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Over the past month or so, I’ve already developed some practical strategies to prioritise my wellbeing and temper my self-confidence. For example, I took a break from Instagram before my exams in December, mainly so I could whole-heartedly dedicate myself to studying but an unintentional by-product of this process was the realisation that the break did my mental health the world of good. Since this mini-epiphany, I’ve been conscientiously spending less time not only on Instagram, but also on social media in general. In the absence of the demoralising impact of being fettered to (literally) incredible airbrushed dimensions where everyone is 110% perfect and expects to be regarded as such, I find the yoke of self-loathing unhitches itself somewhat from my being. After all, I never did train as an ego masseuse!

Additionally, seeking sensory input that I know to be soothing to me is always a game-changer when it comes to anxiety, sensory stress and low mood. For me, music makes everything instantly better and will always be an object of my fascination. On New Year’s Day, I walked out in the pale blue freshness of the evening, hit up my Spotify downloads for the perfect soundtrack and came upon an Eagles compilation. That familiar catalogue of chilled, wistful country music that was a staple in my family’s car repertoire and instantly transports me back to laidback, carefree summer drives from my childhood. Ideal for an anxious Annie like myself. I could not help but be comforted by the sunny idealism of the lyrics, even if always laced with a characteristic hint of melancholy. Things fall to pieces and you’ll run out of luck eventually, but it’ll all work out okay, so what does it matter? What’s the point in worrying and projecting yourself onto a future that will someday be a past in which you were never truly present. This year and this decade, I vow to participate and let a balanced version of me I can look back on with pride flourish. As the Eagles themselves would say:

“Lighten up while you still can, don’t even try to understand, just find a place to make your stand …. We may lose or we may win, but we’ll never be here again. So open up – I’m climbin’ in!”

My Special Interest: The Swinging Sixties!

While there is a tendency to fixate on the challenges of day-to-day life for autistic people, there is also a unique set of strengths that comes with being ‘wired differently’, the neatest of which is our ability to latch onto a niche topic (or ‘special interest’) and become not just knowledgeable, but rather a walking encyclopaedia in that area. Sadly, this talent for absorbing vast stores of information in meticulous detail is often criminally understated in the public domain.

And what’s my special interest, I hear you say? Well, I have many as a matter of fact, but I would certainly consider the centrepiece to be my long-running fascination with all things to do with the Swinging Sixties. Writing for AsIAm as part of their brilliant feature celebrating the Irish autistic community’s special interests, I discuss how I discovered this passion and why it means so much to me. Check out this link and do give it a read!

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Being a Team Player: Sporting Diversity and Inclusion

“And now over to our US correspondent in Washington D.C.”

We all know what comes next. Those first few awkward seconds before the handover reaches the ear of the reporter, during which he simply nods and smiles obliviously into the camera while we viewers wait for him to close the gap, were always a source of great amusement for me as a child. How stupid these people look, I thought, not with any genuine malice, but rather with a puerile smugness that I harboured knowledge, even if only for a matter of seconds, of which these learned men in silk ties weren’t yet in possession. I laughed about it back then, but now, I think it’s the perfect metaphor to describe how having dyspraxia, a developmental condition that is often co-morbid with autism and affects coordination and motor skills, impacted on my physical health growing up.

I didn’t always know this was the case. In fact, this is a very recent epiphany I arrived at while working on Pride Month with Vodafone, my current employers. As Dublin was playing host to the Union Cup, Europe’s largest LGBT+ inclusive rugby tournament, it fell within the remit of my role to promote and communicate the significance and relevance of Vodafone’s sponsorship of the tournament to colleagues. In preparation for this task, I did some research and soon came upon the sad truth that was likely the reasoning behind the establishment of a league such as the Union Cup – that is, the worrying trend of avoidance in the LGBT+ community when it comes to group sports and overall physical activity. Statistics from a 2016 survey by Sport England showed that only 17% of the LGBT+ community are members of a sports club or team while LGBT men and women are 22% and 11% less likely respectively to be active enough to maintain good health compared to the general population. A likely cause of this is the disturbing prevalence of homophobia in sporting settings, with 84% of LGBT men and 82% of LGBT women reporting having homophobic verbal abuse thrown at them while participating in a sport.

Now, what does all of this have to do with autism or dyspraxia? Well, quite a lot as I realised while chatting to some colleagues recently over a cup of coffee. Our conversation took an odd, untraceable tangent, as typical conversations so often do, and somehow, we ended up talking about the Paralympics and how much more engaging they are to watch compared to the Olympics, all on account of the steely determination and willpower of these incredible athletes, on a mission to show the world how brilliantly, inspiringly able they truly are. As I was aware before I’d even signed my contract that I was coming to a workplace which not only tolerates, but also welcomes and even encourages the presence of neurodivergence in its workforce, I disclosed my autism at the very start of my application journey; hence, while I don’t shoehorn it into a conversation to which it doesn’t belong, I have made no secret of my autism and it is by now common knowledge among most colleagues. In fact, this very knowledge was what prompted my colleague to ask the question that acted as catalyst to my epiphany:

“And who are the sporting heroes from your community, Melissa? I can’t say I know of any myself, but perhaps you could educate me.”

I was stumped. Fumbling in the back-drawers of my mind for the name of an autistic soccer player, cyclist, rower or even jockey, I realised I was coming up blank each time and was flabbergasted as to why this was the case. However, as the conversation went on and I had time to chew on this revelation, it suddenly made all the sense in the world as it dawned on me that the world of sports is yet another area in which the challenges and prejudices faced by the LGBT+ and autistic communities seem to overlap.

In my experience, sporting success and my social rating have always been inextricably linked. As far back as my first tennis lessons in primary school, where our instructor whose appearance and detached demeanour reminded me of Anne Robinson from The Weakest Link made us play warm-up games of ‘Cat and Mouse’, it was painfully obvious that I hadn’t the balance and motor skills to execute the sharp turns with the same speed and agility as my classmates. ‘Duck, Duck, Goose’ was a routine humiliation whereby I was the sorry wretch in the middle in all perpetuity, not to mention Sports Day, where I was pitted against the two other petite, light-footed girls in my class and would always come last by an embarrassingly large margin.

Where does neurodivergence come into all of this, I hear you say? Well, for starters, my reflexes aren’t always the most reliable, often causing me to react to certain stimuli much later than you might expect. This is where the dyspraxia really kicks in: you see, that momentary misalignment between what my brain is telling me and what the rest of the world already knows as described in my opening analogy is precisely what happens in my mind when, for example, a tennis ball hurtles towards me. If I swing when my brain decides it makes the most sense to do so, it will be too late and the ball will have already smashed against the bottle green mesh of the court enclosure. Eventually, through a series of semi-private lessons at the local tennis club, I learned to pre-empt this belated neurological signal and prepare to swing before the ball had even landed on my side of the court, meaning the connection between mind and body had been made by the time the ball had reached the lattice of my racquet. Of course, this meant not only having to pre-calculate the trajectory of the ball before it had even made contact, but also working contrary to the brain I am supposed to trust with everything, but I adjusted well to this approach and even became reasonably good as time went on.

Furthermore, to this day, my brain goes into a panicked frenzy at the very prospect of having to spontaneously learn the rules to a game with which I’m not already familiar as my relative slowness to grasp the gist of the game has traditionally led to frustration and bewilderment for all involved. A classic example of this was my first and only summer camp, where I was introduced to camogie (a pretty unique Gaelic sport that’s probably best described as a cross between lacrosse and hockey). As the only child without prior experience, I was embarrassed at my inability to master the jab lift and eventually resorted to rolling the sliotar onto my hurley from the ground while knowing full well that this was against the rules. I like rules as much as the next person, but I was being made into a laughing stock and I wanted to make the whispers and giggles at my expense stop, so desperate times called for desperate measures. Needless to say, that particular endeavour to stop providing the other kids with cannon fodder for their ridicule did nothing to achieve my objective and the derisive snorts continued. Damned if I do, damned if I don’t.

From primary right through to secondary school, I was always picked last for teams. Now, while not an outstanding athlete by any stretch of the imagination, I was certainly a far cry from lousy and given how much more seriously I tended to take whatever sport we were playing that day compared to the other gossip-preferring girls, I, speaking pragmatically, should have been more of an asset than a hindrance to the team on the whole. Hence, my non-existence until it came to a point where I really must at least be seen to belong to one team or another wasn’t by any means a comment on my sporting ineptitude, but rather an assertion of my otherness and remoteness from what they saw as the universal human experience. They just couldn’t seem to relate to me, though I wouldn’t go so far as to say I was a mystery to them as this would imply a curiosity about me that simply wasn’t present.

However, my sporting potential wasn’t entirely lost on my PE teacher, who immediately zeroed in on my height and arrived at the ridiculous conclusion that this would automatically make me the ideal shooting guard for the junior basketball team. Though I personally felt of most use to the team back in zone defence, where my height could be utilised to much better effect by blocking shots and catching rebounds, who was I to argue with the coach? So, feeling flattered to be singled out for my potential and grateful for the excuse to fill up lunchtimes I’d otherwise be spending sitting alone in the canteen or avoiding the caretaker for the chance of solitude inside the locked school building, I joined up. However, what followed was four years of exclusion, scapegoating and bullying of both a physical and psychological nature from my teammates, both on and off the court. I finally called it quits after Transition Year for the sake of my mental health and though I enjoyed the sport in and of itself, I left the experience feeling utterly demoralised and dissuaded from ever touching team sports again.

Horse-riding, meanwhile, was a much more enjoyable outlet for my pent-up anxieties and became something of an obsession for me in my early teens. Having originally taken it up on recommendation from my physio on account of my unusually straight spine, I soon found myself competing with my local Pony Club branch all over the country. Though I encountered the same social difficulties there as in all walks of life, the fact that it was only my four-legged best friend and I when the time came to hit the open field made it refreshingly easy to forget that my team were counting on me and if I duck a fence, knock an oxer or halt unevenly for my dressage salute, it has the consequence of skewing our overall score. I was never in it to win it and only went for a thrilling day out, which it most certainly was on most occasions!

My brief competitive career as an equestrian in pictures!

At the age of 17, however, I could no longer own horses for circumstantial reasons and as the cost of hiring horses out for the day is astronomical to put it lightly, I took a significant step back from my one athletic crutch, the consequences of which emerged with frightening speed. By the time I turned 18, I weighed over 200 lbs and while I don’t think I grasped the full extent of my obesity at the time, I was aware of how hideous it made me look and I felt miserable. However, I was too scarred from my previous experiences in team sports to take one up again and too terrified of being laughed at by trying my hand at a new sport to do anything about the sorry state my physical and mental health was in for quite some time. It was only after I stepped on the scales for the first time in years and gasped at the reading that I was shocked and guilted into action, taking up the attractively individual-centric pastime of walking and soon progressing to running. By my second year of college, I had thankfully managed to shed almost 60 lbs and reach a healthy BMI. While I still carry a little flab, physical exercise is now an integral part of my everyday life and I can’t imagine my life without the buzz it gives me!

However, I do believe that mine is a cautionary tale as it causes me to wonder how many other autistic or dyspraxic people were ostracised or jeered at on the playing field for their lack of understanding of game rules, for their slow reflexes or simply for being different. Everyone and their mother knows of the benefits the endorphins released by regular physical exercise has for your physical and mental wellbeing and, conversely, how physical inactivity can take its toll not only on your body, but also on your mind; hence, though I have failed to find any metrics around the autistic community and participation in sports, I can’t help but feel that this is something that has slipped under the radar for longer than it should have and some initiatives should be explored to help autistic people feel more welcome not only to participate in teams sports, but also to feel that we genuinely belong and are valued both as a team player and as a fellow human being.

As was made clear by the Twitter hilarity that recently ensued regarding Jacob Rees-Mogg’s ignorance of the diversity of England’s World Cup champion cricket team, there is as much to be said for diversity and inclusion in every arena of life, be it on the playing field, in the workplace or in our courts and parliament chambers. At the end of a match, it is customary to shake the hand of your opponent as a mark of respect: if you can show that to a person of whom you’ve just done everything in your power to get the upper hand, then I can’t imagine it being an unbearable strain to do us the same courtesy by reaching out your hand in an act of sincere brotherhood. The time has come to embrace your neurodivergent teammates not in spite of how differently they think, but because of it. And who knows: in a few years’ time, there could be a whole new generation of autistic sporting role models whom future autistics can grow up looking up to!

I’ve Got to Have Faith!

Since it is Autistic Pride Day and I am too tired/lazy to conjure up something original, I’m going to reblog this post I wrote awhile back around the theme of faith, self-belief and pride – qualities I’d love every member of the autistic community to realise within themselves and be allowed to freely celebrate without being accused of arrogance. So Happy Autistic Pride Day, ladies and gents – there’s a great deal to be proud of looking back, and plenty more to come!

Aspie & Me: A Self-Portrait of Asperger's

“Melissa, Melissa – I really wish you’d have some faith in yourself!”
Even as I sit now and write this post, I can vividly recall these words and the exasperated shake of the head that accompanied them. They came from my maths teacher as I emerged from my junior state exam, all in a flurry over a question on the paper that had thrown me slightly. I, as was my habit, happened to finish my exam far too early, and humming and hawing over the inelegant figures I came up with for this particular question, made the fatal error of using this surplus time to doubt myself. I rubbed out what I had and tried alternative methods until I got a ‘cleaner’ figure, so to speak, and as soon as I left that exam hall, I sought out my maths teacher, who I knew would be waiting outside expectantly, hoping…

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We’re With You, Aoife

I am shocked, confused and utterly appalled by the fallout of an incident involving a prominent member of our community this week.

The controversy in question, which has been making national headlines over the past few days, can be traced back to the English paper that kicked off the Junior Cert exams last Wednesday. To provide a little context for international readers, the Junior Cert exams are the Irish equivalent to the GCSEs in the UK, i.e. a set of state exams that you take when you’re around 15. English is always the first exam and among the reading comprehensions that featured in this year’s paper was an abridged and edited excerpt of an article penned by Irish comedienne Aoife Dooley. This article was part of a series circulated by The Irish Times whereby people were invited to write about their biggest “pet peeves” in a creative and entertaining way. Being a comedienne, Dooley naturally opted to utilise humour to express her unsavoury sensory experiences while using public transport, from her profound aversion to the stench of crisps and deli foods (110% with you on that one, Aoife – frankly, I’d rather smell pig slurry) to the inevitable pretentious commuter who feels the need to broadcast her phone conversations to the entire bus. The original piece, as featured in The Irish Times, is both hilarious and delightfully relatable.

However, it’s amazing the difference the odd abridgement here and word substitution there can make, for better or for worse. The comedic essence of the authentic, untouched piece, which enables readers to proceed with the understanding that this hyperbolic account is to be understood as harmless humour and nothing more than that, had alarmingly diminished by the time it left the State Examinations Commission’s editing room. Clearly, no offence was intended and the piece was to be appreciated as a drole observation of human behaviour as it coincides with the hustle and bustle of 21st-century life, but thanks to some woefully poor word substitutions and insufficient context, the article that appeared on the Junior Cert English paper underwent a rather unfortunate tonal transformation. This resulted in quite a few Junior Cert students not taking kindly to Dooley’s commentary, which they saw as an affront to perfectly reasonable behaviour which they likely engage in regularly themselves. The result was a barrage of insulting and threatening messages being hurled in the direction of Dooley’s social media accounts. Any question of the inflammatory comments in question having nothing to do with Dooley’s autism can be eliminated simply by reading how horrifically explicit these teens were in stating the object their hostility:

Ms Dooley said she was warned that she would have “bricks thrown through her window” and have her “legs cut off”, while another message said she would be so badly beaten that she “won’t be autistic anymore.”

It is worth mentioning that quite contentiously, the crucial cuts and changes mentioned above were made without Dooley’s prior knowledge or consent. This is perfectly acceptable under Irish copyright law and given the circumstances, at least somewhat understandable. However, while I cam understand the necessity of cutting out passages for the sake of brevity, the implications for altering the qualitative content of a piece, especially when these changes are made by someone besides the original author whose understanding of the piece is therefore incomplete and subject to divergent interpretations, are potentially life-changing, as has sadly been the case with Aoife Dooley. Not surprisingly, the backlash to the article from some Junior Cert students has had a profoundly negative impact on her mental health and has caused her to no longer see social media as a safe space for her.

 

This is the story of our lives. When we try to express ourselves in a way that is true to how we perceive the world, it is far too often taken out of context and hence blown out of proportion. Why? Because people, unwittingly or otherwise, take the things we say and do and try to align us to their own context. Then, when the mismatch becomes evident, they label us “rude”, “ignorant” or “lazy”, all without making the least effort to step back and try to compose a picture of our context. No, the irony isn’t lost on me, either.

However, I deeply admire Dooley for the astoundingly strong and empathetic manner in which she has dealt with this awful situation. Her consideration of these kids’ futures by opting not to name them publicly, even though they are all old enough to know that hurling abuse at someone is never okay, is really quite remarkable. Instead, Dooley is using the great deal of hurt this fallout has caused her to fathom the new dangers that face children of the cyber-generation, whose digital fingerprints are documented everywhere they go online:

“I know that most students are not sending abuse, and many have sent supportive messages, but this type of bad online behaviour could come back to haunt them in the future. It makes me feel that it must be quite scary to be a teenage girl.”

Honestly, I’ve been completely taken aback by the ferocity of the backlash to Dooley’s authentic and completely valid sensory experience. Here. In 2019. While it is true that she only discovered she was on the autism spectrum last year (two years after the article was written) part of me wants to believe that the backlash might not have been quite so severe had the article description on the exam paper stated that Dooley was autistic. Would it have been, though? It has always been my impression that I was raised in a country that’s notably tolerant and accepting of autism in comparison to other parts of the world and in spite of misinformation and a lack of authentic knowledge about autism among the general Irish population, I genuinely believed that most people have the best of intentions towards us. Now, I’m not so sure what to believe and I’m starting to question whether my faith may have been naïve or misguided.

However, one belief that I doggedly cling to, no matter what crisis or adversity threatens to shake me off, is my faith in the fundamental kindness of all people, even those who hide behind a façade of arrogance or cruelty. That’s my lifebuoy and it is so effective in keeping me afloat because it’s not simply something I want to be true, but something I know to be true. We are good. Life is good. And Aoife – while those nasty comments may never lose their bite, I hope that you, too, may always keep this in your sight. In the meantime, we’re all with you.

 

Sources:

https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/people/sound-off-don-t-get-me-started-about-other-people-on-the-bus-1.3279050

https://www.rte.ie/lifestyle/living/2019/0104/1020299-aoife-dooley-on-being-diagnosed-with-autism-at-27/

https://www.irishtimes.com/news/education/comedian-who-appeared-on-junior-cert-paper-subject-to-online-rape-threats-1.3917233

 

Mini-Marathon, Mega-Fun!

Little-known fact about me: I’m quite the Forrest Gump. I know, you’d never think it by looking at me, but within the comfort of my own home, I spend hours at a time on the treadmill as a way of spending the excess of hyperactive physical energy I always seem to have.

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Why is this little-known? Well, even though I love running and often use it as a crutch to help me disengage from the demands and strains of daily life, I refuse to run in public, where there may well be witnesses to the comically uncoordinated manner in which my limbs flail about.

See the source image

So, as my index finger hovered hesitantly over the keyboard as I registered for my first mini-marathon and was asked whether I’d be running, jogging or walking it, I couldn’t quite swallow my self-consciousness hard enough to click “running”, despite knowing I was likely up to it on a physical level. Far more important to me than a physical challenge, however, was the opportunity to raise funds for an organisation whose mission is very close to my heart. AsIAm.ie, as Ireland’s leading autism charity, has proved to be absolutely invaluable in educating the wider Irish public about autism and encouraging a culture of acceptance, inclusion and empowerment for the autistic community in Ireland. This has been and continues to be achieved by providing us, the autistic community, with a platform through which our voices, too often silenced in favour of “experts” and professionals in matters concerning us, may be heard.

Before this organisation came into being, I felt desolate and so incredibly alone. I knew nobody else on the autism spectrum and since my only frame of reference was myself, with whom I was perpetually disgusted as a teenager, I went to great lengths to shun every aspect of my identity I thought might “out” me as autistic. However, thanks to the incredible work AsIAm have done since its inception, I’ve been enabled to embrace my autism as something inherently positive and the part of me perhaps most worthy of embracing in the first place. This remarkable organisation couldn’t have come round at a more ideal time as the first generation of us to have been diagnosed as children are now grown up and find ourselves in our early twenties, perhaps the most transformative decade of our lives and one which will likely be littered with crucial crossroads that can be difficult to navigate, even at the best of times. By facilitating free community support events, speaking at schools and helping an ever-increasing share of interested agencies facilitate an accessible, autism-friendly workplace, there is no end to the strides made by AsIAm to eliminate stumbling blocks and inhibitions for the Irish autistic community and afford us the breathing space to be who we really are without fear of judgment. Knowing what it has done for me and has likely done for countless others, I cannot begin to imagine a worthier recipient of the funds I set out to raise.

As it happens, I was coming to live in Dublin that same week for work purposes anyway (which I’m super, super excited about!) and although I don’t start work until tomorrow, I arranged to move up the night before the mini-marathon so I could get the “lay of the land”, so to speak, while also saving me the stress of travelling on a packed train or bus. When I first registered to do the mini-marathon, I didn’t even know of the existence of the job I (very much to my surprise!) ended up being offered, never mind that my start date would happily coincide with the race. So, I was incredibly lucky the way things worked out and I cannot imagine a more spectacular start to my life in Dublin!

On race day, I woke up from the most glorious night’s sleep I’ve had in years, courtesy of the new duvet and pillow I’d bought the evening before. Life is good, I thought to myself as I stretched, had a shower and got dressed. Eager to soak up the pre-race atmosphere, I headed in to the city centre in the morning and sought shade from the intensifying sun in the technicolour sanctuary of St Stephen’s Green, whose array of floral colour was bolstered on this special day by the amassing all-woman army of whites, purples, and reds with the occasional dash of neon yellows, oranges and blues. Many of us there for a charity whose mission we believe in and every one of us belonging to a team. Even those running for themselves were at the helm of their own team and united by a fundamental self-faith that they can do this race. Today, everyone belongs. The prefix “dis-“ -“dyspraxia”, “dystrophy”, “disability” – was splashed everywhere across partakers’ T-shirts, but as it rippled with movement, I felt it gradually fade into obscurity until it lost all its meaning. Today, everyone can.

Image may contain: Melissa Mooney, smiling, sunglasses, outdoor, close-up and nature

All the while, a budding atmosphere of anticipation was rising as people pinned race numbers to one another and carefully rearranged the contents of the transparent VHI backpack with which we’d all been provided. Spontaneous cheers and rounds of applause occasionally filled the air as groups gave each other energetic pep talks and it would have been exceedingly difficult not to be carried along by this infectious air of excitement. In fact, I spent the entire morning walking around with an involuntary, out-of-context grin pasted across my face. Except on this particular day, it wasn’t out-of-context at all. This same excitement seemed to carry us like an instinctive tidal wave towards the start line and it was at this point I began to fathom just how vast the crowds were. I began to get a little anxious, for I had yet to find my friends who’d travelled from elsewhere in the country and thought my chances of locating them in this enormous horde were dismayingly low. However, we did eventually track each other down and now that I had my team by my side, I was raring to go!

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Being near the back of the walker group, getting to the start line was a gratingly slow process. While the “weirdness” of my run means I seldom, if ever, do so in public, I don’t have this same issue with walking. In fact, the frequency with which I walk the roads has apparently made me into something of a landmark in my hometown and locals often joke to me that they always know I’ve returned to college when I suddenly stop passing their window every day! However, I am virtually incapable of “strolling” and find I need to walk at a brisk pace in order to keep my balance. Needless to say, “power-walking” is all but impossible in a crowd that large, so it was inevitable that I would get in some people’s way and clip the odd heel.

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At the start, this was frustrating as my clumsiness and awful motor skills are something I try hard not to let show in day-to-day life, but it soon became clear that today, everyone’s clumsy – in a crowd of Ploughing Match proportions, it’d be pretty damn impressive if you weren’t! Freed of my last remaining inhibitions, my friends and I politely ducked and dodged our way up the never-ending column of women until we reached an opening where we could dictate our own pace. Before, we knew it, we were almost at the head of the walking group and could see the joggers ahead of us and with some breathing space, we relaxed into a stride that suited us. The sky was just beginning to cast a grey marble sheet of cloud over us as we approached the finish line and many of us responded accordingly by picking up the pace or starting to jog. Just over 2 hours later, my friends and I crossed the finish line, which wasn’t half shabby considering we started out at the very back of the pack!

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By now, I’m running out of adjectives and superlatives to use while describing my first mini-marathon, but let it suffice to say that it was an exceedingly positive one! The entertainment en route, with corny motivational songs and us being encouraged to sing along, was brilliant. I did have to down some paracetamol to combat a growing headache from the constant drone of the loudspeaker and the drummers were a bit much for me personally. But that’s just me and my hypersensitivity to noise and I can appreciate why they were such a big hit with the other walkers! The chats and general craic I had with my friends as we made our way around made the 10K, which even before the race I realised would be over in a heartbeat, absolutely fly by and I certainly wouldn’t have enjoyed the experience near so much if it weren’t for their amazing company!

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Also, the race was incredibly useful for me on a practical level in that it acted as an orientation of sorts for me, a Class A culchie who’s making our nation’s capital her home for the next three months. Essentially, it was like a walking tour of the city centre and as someone who prefers memorising landmarks to trying to understand maps, it was a great help to see with my own eyes where X is in relation to Y.

To top off what was already a thoroughly enjoyable day, my friends and I made our way back up Baggot Street as soon as we grabbed our medals and finisher’s T-shirt, where the folks at AsIAm very kindly provided us with food and drink. Being me, I was incredibly awkward at first, especially after my friends had to leave early to make their way home. However, I needn’t have worried, for Team AsIAm couldn’t have been more welcoming and vocal in their gratitude. Even though I didn’t know any of these people, they went out of their way to include me and once I got talking to them, I instantly felt at ease. Though the music in the background was far too loud for me to pick up what was being said to me first time round, never mind keep a conversation going, I nevertheless felt completely comfortable, which isn’t something I’m usually able to say about any social situation! It was the perfect end to an amazing day and I arrived home that evening without a shadow of doubt in my mind that the money I’d raised was going to the right place.

 

For more information on AsIAm, I’d strongly recommend that you visit their website at www.asiam.ie .

 

 

Your Europe, Your Choice

Tomorrow, we Irish voters go to the polls (as the flashy, neon roadside posters making rural Ireland look like Times Square have ensured we don’t forget). With canvassers galore wandering from door to door, there has been a great buzz surrounding the local elections in the past few weeks. However, without belittling the importance of the local elections, I’d like to stress that the elections to the European Parliament, also taking place tomorrow, equally deserve our attention.

 
According to a 2017 survey by Eurobarometer, Ireland is the most enthusiastic member state about the future trajectory of the EU, with a staggering 77% of respondents affirming their faith in the European project has not been shaken by the succession of crises with which the EU has been confronted over the past decade. However, Irish turnout figures at the 2014 European election belie this supposed investment in a shared European future with a mere 52.5% of eligible voters casting a vote. Compare that to the 2016 general election, which saw an overall turnout of 65%. I understand the growing apathy to some extent: the EU is an abstract, seemingly inaccessible body that no one, not even the experts, seems to fully understand. Even as I watched the Primetime debates for my constituency, I was disheartened by many candidates’ conflation of European policy-making with local issues, whether by genuine ignorance or by design. However, the European Parliament has become an increasingly influential institution over the past few decades and as co-legislators in regulations and policies which affect us a lot more than we might realise, it is crucial not only that we use our vote, but that we know what our vote means.

 
Before the polls close at 10pm tomorrow, there is still plenty of time to inform yourself about what’s at stake. Read up on the European Parliament and what it does. If you already have particular candidates in mind, find out what party grouping they belong to in the Parliament and what this grouping stands for (they don’t line up as neatly as they do on national level). Watch the debates for your constituency on RTÉ Player. Or perhaps most helpfully, check out http://www.whichcandidate.ie/ , an amazing tool developed by the politics department at my home university which helps you determine which candidate would best represent your beliefs when acting in a legislative capacity as MEP.

 

As a whole, the EU is a very far cry from flawless, but unless we do our bit and directly participate in this incredibly unique transnational electoral process, the like of which exists nowhere else in the world, is it quite fair to dismiss the whole concept as democratically deficient? Democracy requires participation, and we haven’t been participating. This is a flaw of our own making, and one which can easily be made good. The 24th May: you know what to do.

 

Sources:

https://ec.europa.eu/ireland/news/irish-most-positive-about-eu-eurobarometer_en

http://www.europarl.europa.eu/elections2014-results/en/turnout.html

https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/election-2016/analysis-election-2016-voter-turnout-34493145.html