I’ve been an actor for more than 20 years, and analysed data for more than 30. I trained at the esteemed University of Western Sydney Nepean in physical theatre and at the University of Sydney where I studied neurophysiology. I’ve also studied a wide range of acting styles and techniques, and have skills raging through voice acting, physical and stand-up comedy and stage fighting making me a versatile actor with an eclectic career.
Sydney based I have lectured and performed around the world. For more info check out the about me page above. For examples of my work have a look through the video and photo pages. For a bio and to get in touch see my contacts page.
Saturday 2nd April is World Autism Awareness Day (or what a lot of us autistic folk like to rebrand Autistic Appreciation Day). You’ve probably heard me talk a lot about what it’s like to be autistic and neurodivergent in the arts and culture space.
But it’s not time for me to talk. It’s time to clear a space for some black autistic voices. Autistic BIPOC folks in the neurodivergent community and media don’t get heard anywhere near enough. So here are some to get you started
At the start of the year, like many folks, I’ve jumped back into getting the chaos of my job back into order with new planners and journals. Yes, again. However, this year I’ve stumbled across some great ones that I wanted to share.
The Hero’s Journal
A friend from my ASD&D (Autism Spectrum Dungeons and Dragons) group brought this up with me a while ago and I’ve since been enraptured by it. The Hero’s Journal is a daily planner, diary, … thing … that has developed a bit of traction across the neurodiversity community. It takes something that you want to achieve and presents it in a Magical Quest form to keep it interesting and fun. It’s not just whimsical, it presents pretty concrete psychological planning conceits in a (let’s face it) wonderfully nerdy way, giving your personal project the Joseph Campbell treatment. It comes in two versions, the Adventure style and a Magical Wizardry School style
The hardest thing was coming up with a project, and after wracking my brain (pardon the pun) I came up with my mental health. I’ve got so many things that I really want to do at any one time that coming up with a single project seemed small – that’s until I stepped back a bit. So much of what I’ve been trying to achieve (autistic advocacy, personal fitness, support groups, etc) fall completely under my constant struggle with my own mental health. It was a bit of a revelation that I could unify so much of what I want to get done day to day under that super objective.
It starts with mapping out what you want to achieve and getting you to define the stakes. The rest of the journal is a daily planner with 3 goals and a threat and ally list. At first I was a bit sceptical but recurring threats kept appearing during my early morning planning sessions which highlighted lurking concerns that I had in the back of my mind unacknowledged. The allies section was great. Full disclosure, I’m terrible at gratitude. Judge me all you like, I don’t understand the concept. But an ally list was great for me identifying people and processes that I had in my corner.
Dani Donovan (https://www.adhddd.com/) is a cartoonist who creates content explaining the struggles of ADHD. She is marvellous and funny and well worth following on Insta. HOWEVER her new project is the Anti-Planner.
How many of us have picked up a planner on the 1st January only to find that after a few entries it falls by the wayside? Well the Anit-Planner is the thing you do before you get to the Journal (in retrospect this should have been in the beginning of the post)
The by-line is “How to get sh*t done when you don’t feel like it”. It tackles project management, not through planning, but by dealing with the road bumps and potholes that derail us.
I’m beta testing the Overwhelmed section, which is one of the 5 categories of roadblocks. The others are Stuck, Unmotivated, Unorganised and Discouraged. Each of these areas have their own unique challenges and Dani has collected some incredible “mini-games” to clear that path to success. The first task in Overwhelmed is “How to half *** a project” designed to overcome perfectionism. There are 2 lists to fill out here, what is the meat of the project (aka the “must haves”) and what is the gravy (aka nice but are not necessary). Another task is this section is dealing with your dreaded Procrastination Hit List. Cartoon those tasks you keep putting off on the supplied Wanted Posters and send out a posse to bring ’em in!
There are silly things in there but all back with solid psychological theory. It’s an amazing way of getting Projects back on track when you “you know what you need to do, but struggle to get yourself to do it”
This blog post arrived from Hero’s Journal (the product of whom, I love) about distraction. It seemed to infer that distraction was the result of anxiety. It’s not that I’ve not heard that before (it’s quite a common trope in the “How to destress” pop-culture circle), but perhaps it struck me as odd here because the it was making distraction the subject rather than anxiety. The other reason it raised my attention’s right eyebrow was because I was talking (aka info-dumping) with a work pal this morning about the difference between working in the office and working at home.
Anxiety is not the primary reason for me to be distracted. IN FACT anxiety is a great driver of focus. In the office I tend to hyper-focus a lot because the excessive noise and human electricity-pollution creates such a atmosphere of stimulus stress that I usually have little choice but to burrow into work. Similarly task urgency makes me push into hyper-focus easily.
Additionally I’m more inclined to daydream when I’m in my home office working with much lower distractions and sensory pain.
Look, I’m no stranger to Yerkes-Dodson curve. I know that pressure leads to performance to a point. BUT I’m much more likely to hyper-focus with higher stress even when that stress is damaging.
It’s an ADHD thing (I’m pretty sure). I get distracted at low stress points and highly attentive at high stress points (until I meltdown). Heck, I went into business mode for a week when I arrived in Cairo the morning of Arab-spring when liaising with Australian and Canadian Governments (and the beautiful people of Egypt) saved our lives.
There’s also the judgment call on what we call performance. Free associating is great innovation work. It’s essential to me making innovative ground on projects.
So “No.” Destressing is not a solution to my distractedness. In many cases it’s the exact opposite.
On the other hand do check out the Hero’s Journal. I love mine and I’m using it to my personal mental health project. More on that soon
So as I’m on holiday at the moment and powering through my holiday reading … and listening as I’ve taken to long walks accompanied by podcasts. I’d Just finished Sarah Kurchak’s hilarious memoir (I Overcame My Autism and All I Got Was This Lousy Anxiety Disorder) that I’d been trying to finish all year. It was a book that I’ll read when I felt my sense of self starting to become insubstantial, like Marty McFly vanishing because his past was starting to become erased. Whenever I felt so apart from the world around me I’d read some of that book and know that I wasn’t the alone (and it was ok to laugh).
Since then I’ve been searching for my next literary adventure, which I found in …
Katherine May’s “Wintering Sessions” Podcast
So full disclosure – I love Katherine May’s stuff. She is an excellent writer that I discovered through her memoir “The Electricity of Every Living Thing.” In the book Katherine talks about the year that she took on the 630 km South West Coast Path walk to try and understand why her life seemed to be so overwhelming and isolating, with the realisation that she is autistic. As diverse as the spectrum is there are things that we almost all agree on, and her fitting together that puzzle of a lifetime of experiences during her years journey was something that very familiar.
Her second book is “Wintering.” Wintering (as a verb) is described as the power of rest and retreat in difficult times. It’s a very apt metaphor for pulling back and healing in response to those times when trauma comes into our life. But rather than a dormant time Katherine talks about how actively nurturing, necessary and powerful that time is. It isn’t a maudlin or depressing read at all. It’s a beautiful exploration of growth and opportunity.
And from that book she has curated an incredible series of discussions in podcast form that I urge anyone to listen to. In the Wintering Sessions Katherine interviews writers and artists who have weathered their own difficult times and have been transformed. The format is wonderfully personal and informal, making it very easy to connect to the people at the heart of their own story. I picked the podcast up in the Divergent Conversations Instagram series starting with her conversation with multiform artist Sonia Boué. The incredibly open and easy conversation between two neurodivergent artists was incredibly refreshing.
So that’s my reading list for this end of 2021; both healing and inclusive. If you need new podcast (or book) have a crack.
I’m interested in what you might be consuming during the holiday season.
The holidays can be rough for everyone. And for us Neuro Distinct folx it can be difficult to explain how differently tough they can be. Routine changes, flashing lights and loud music, social pressures, crowds and fine motor control puzzles can throw a spanner into your executive function machine, at the very least.
For me it is an exorbitantly overwhelming time that I struggle to keep just shy of whelmed. But however you want to celebrate – small, big, quiet or noisy – your way is valid.
That might mean:
Taking time out from a big social scene to lie on your bed with NC headphones on and recuperate (ie: get some spoons back)
Blocking out “Do Not Disturb” time to revise your plan for the next few days
Opening gifts the way you want to (for me it’s one piece of tape at a time)
Politely stating your boundaries
Getting a buddy to help you out when it gets too much (or too little)
How to ADHD has really been on the money lately with incredible work tips that have really sung to me.
Taking on too much work.
Ah YES! Over committing is a huge challenge for my life for a number of reasons. Living a life in line with your values seemed a bit like the title of a pop psych book from the 90s (and personal baggage for another time). However stepping back for a minute and looking at what life values I need to prioritise was really great. Instead of fitting in one more request for other people, I really need to hit pause and take time out for myself, and the things on the top of my value list that I’m ignoring. Things like personal health and relationships.
One way that I’m looking at that at the moment is by monitoring my emotional health using the Daylio app. It also tracks potentially related stuff like healthy eating, exercise and personal timeouts. Because the best way to get an over committed data junkie to take time out is with the lure of more data.
The other thing is Trello. I talk about this a lot. I have a personal Kanban for projects that I need to achieve and hard and soft deadlines for that. For other work requests I’m building in two times a day of 30 minutes where I clear &/or prioritise those requests. Of course I can’t ignore everyone (as much as that sounds like heaven) but it does mean that I can block out times to focus and on what task knowing that the alerts will get dealt with in their own space.
That’s a great segue into the other great vlog – Monotasking. It’s a great reminder about the illusion that multitasking is somehow good. I’ve known for a long time that my brand autistic neurotype deals with interruptions by crashing my brains hard drive. It’s no secret that changing my focus requires a good 5-10 seconds to shelve what I was doing and making the turn. Even then it takes a bunch of effort to do. But split focus is also a pain for other neurotypes.
Monotasking is a great way to do lots well. Blocking out slabs of time to get things done. It’s also good to block in slabs of time to do social or answer people’s questions. It’s an idea I want to try out more and see how it goes.
Here are the two quick YouTube eps that I’m talking about. Love to hear the ways you are hacking your work for your brain.
I get the message. I don’t belong. I know that people would be upset to know that their words say that, but it’s there.
A work conversation recently to a group of colleagues was along the lines of, “it’s so much better for you to go into the office and have those organic conversations; to be able to catch someone in the corridor and get an answer to a question. We were all in yesterday and it was so easy and we got so much cleared.”
I know what they mean and I know that they mean well, but what they are actively telling me (and people like me) is that your authentic self is not welcome and your personal health is not important. ie: you don’t belong.
That’s a pretty strong statement for me to make. But it’s necessary because it’s in direct contravention of disability equity and inclusion goals. The act of having to prove fundamental truths about ones experience, and having to prove the barriers for disability is part of the problem. Milton’s double empathy problem1 states “when people with very different experiences of the world interact with one another, they will struggle to empathise with each other.” The issue is the lack of equality in the relationship creates a paradigm that, as the autistic experience is not able to be felt by others, it is frequently questioned, dismissed or disbelieved, despite evidence to the contrary.
Conversely we understand and accept the needs for a large portion of neurotypical & allistic society to need spontaneous interaction to function at their peak. If you need that to be at your best we support it (if it could not be at our expense that would be great too). Many of the needs of the widest part of the neurotypical (and frequently white, cis-male, heteronormative etc) community are baked into the work culture. But often that is at the expense of the minority.
Too many times in the past when I’ve come up against group pep talks (or group reprimand) I’ve approached the speaker to clarify what I’m doing wrong or explain the difficulty in doing what was asked. Every time I’ve been told “Oh I wasn’t talking to you”. What that DOES tell me is that I’m rarely, if ever, talked to. Like the opening speech. Hence my problem. What has been said in those moments are a general statement establishing general expectations, ie: the status quo. I exist outside of that ie: I am siloed.
So why is the office environment a problem?
Inherently it’s not, but a couple of issues are2:
Autistic folks keep a lot of information in conscious memory. On top of that we are asked to performatively mask in order to fit into the work culture taking up additional resources. Screening out background noise, smells and UV lighting takes even more resources. As a consequence there is not a lot of conscious processing left to focus on what we need to do. Therefore social interruptions and “can I just grab you a moment” can be crippling.
Masking leads to suicidality and burnout3. Reason being is that if you succeed then you have just proved that a persona is more valid than your authentic self. If you fail then you let slip your authentic self to your detriment. Additionally the effort to maintain that persona takes energy and focus that you need for your basic work and self.
Multiple conversations at the same time like in a lunch room, or corridor, require screening out of background noise and stimulus. That takes effort. That’s not even starting on eye contact and body language.
Not having time to prepare information for a conversation means that a lot of processing power will have to go into dragging that information into conscious memory, and shelving the task that you were on.
Often the spontaneous conversation will require an answer that hasn’t been scripted. Yet again this increases the amount of conscious thinking to
a) parse the information and formulate a response,
b) judge the position and personal status of the one you are talking to in case they need a specific tone or level of detail,
c) edit that response for generally socially acceptable norms,
d) keep looking for facial and/or body language cues from the person you are talking too. NB/ I have to do this in conscious memory.
We are expected to do all the above AND not rock the boat.
By existing outside of that I am excluded. So isn’t existing outside of the rules a positive accommodation? No. I’ll explain.
To fit into the work environment I’ll need to subject myself to exhaustion and pain OR not be in the room where decisions are being made. Not being in the place where the organic conversations were being had means being excluded from the decision making process (bad for me) and having ones knowledge, skill and experience removed from the decision (bad for the business).
Because I am rarely in the room when these decisions are being made I am frequently coming up against last minute deadlines. These scrambling for deadlines and approvals further impact mental health as well as business outcomes and can lead me to working 12+ hour days.
People don’t want to deal with disability and so they work around it and create a silo. This leads to more forceful insistence and begging, which in turn leads to more alienation.
So there’s got to be a solution right?
Sure, I’m not going to just complain and run (that’s no good for my own mental health at the very least). The solution is to be prepared. Set meetings with an agenda (or create them in the moment) and write stuff down. Designate someone to take minutes. Follow up and inform. Plan. Respect boundaries.
But there are other things as well. Celebrating team wins need to be done in a way that everyone can participate in. Staff x-mas parties are excluding, and if I attend I do so at my own health cost. Team building activities are the same.
So keep in mind that (despite what pop-organisational psychology might suggest) we are not all the same. You have a diversity of colleagues and reports. Treat them with equity (not just equality) and find the way to come together. They alternative is loss of talent and headaches – but also depression and burnout.
It’s a lovely sunny winter weekend afternoon over here in Sydney lockdown. I’ve just made a batch of spinach and cheese arancini and am contemplating the medium future in the way that you do when you are observing time by the rate that a cat has to shift its position on the bed to remain sleeping in the sun.
TLCC2021 stirred up a few thoughts for me. One was inspired from the many incredible sessions that I went to from the Tessitura Enterprise team (whom I always imagine as being Starfleet Officers). I succumbed to their insistence that I finally read CRM at the Speed of Light, and not leave it as a shelved trophy for my Zoom background.
The other was this blog post on the ADHD tax, that I’d been thinking about for some time. If you are not familiar there has been a term floating around the online community about the concept of this tax, the cost to ADHDers for replacing things that have gotten lost, credit score hits from forgetting bills, late fees for things that have not been returned on time, impulse buys for things that we honestly don’t need, etc. It is one of those things that ADHDers will sigh and agree, and a recent Reddit post with almost 9000 upvotes and 700 replies underscores that sentiment.
Back to reading Paul Greenberg, I was at around chapter 2 on collaborating with customers when those two thoughts crashed together. At TLCC I was banging on about making equity for neurodivergent folks in the workplace. This is incredibly important for belonging and inclusion for our colleagues. It is a simple step to widen that thought process to our ND customers.
I’m going to quote Starfleet’s quote of Paul Greenberg definition of CRM
“CRM is a philosophy and a business strategy supported by a system and a technology designed to improve human interactions in a business environment”
Paul Greenberg, CRM Magazine, October 2003
It’s that final bit that really is the kicker for me. In CRM at the Speed of Light 4th ed Paul goes on to define Social CRM as
“Social CRM is a philosophy and a business strategy, supported by a technology platform, business rules, processes, and social characteristics, designed to engage the customer in a collaborative conversation in order to provide mutually beneficial value in a trusted and transparent business environment.“
Paul Greenberg, CRM at the Speed of Light
The collaborative conversation in a trusted and transparent environment is important because, as we continue to see, we need to walk the values we talk.
So here is my pitch. In the interest of a modern and inclusive CRM (business and customer) relationship, how are arts orgs helping our customers with the ADHD tax? How are we helping patrons remember shows with pre show emails? How are we giving our customers clear and actionable ways of exchanging without judgement? What are our rules with regards to a cooling off period on impulse buys? A friend’s (Martin Keen) recent forum post on adding an iCal element to booking confirmations was a great thinking point on inclusive design and being broad in our DEAI goals.
There are a number of business rules, processes and technologies that we can use to engage our customers in ways that make our relationship stronger. I’m excited to look at my own organisation’s accessibility from increasingly broad perspectives.
Another conference over. Sad but true. It was about 50 hours of video and face to face over the week. As with conferences it was hyper focus for the week followed by info digestion time. Well meaning folk talk about looking after yourself, only doing x hours, regular breaks etc. and a lot of that is right. I would sleep in 1-3 hour shifts but my waking focus was all on conference learning and sharing. I’ve tried other ways of being but it’s not healthy to be honest. A little thing that allistics don’t really understand is that it’s not the hours that cause stress but the human interaction and switching between tasks that really get us. Suffice to say that it was a great conference with a lot achieved.
As always I went to quite a few Customer Relationship Management lectures and picked up a great suite of recommends – some that I’ve been wanting to read for a long time like “Nudge” (Thaler and Sunstein), “Decisive” (Chip and Dan Heath), “CRM at the Speed of Light” (Paul Greenberg) … and the huge favourite “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Nobel prize-winner Daniel Kahneman.
So I started by post conference reading on Daniel Kahneman. This book has come up in many conversations and readings over the years and is built on 40 years of research. Systems processing in psychology breaks thinking into 2 processes
System 1 “is the brain’s fast, automatic, intuitive approach”. System 1 activity includes the innate mental activities that we are born with, such as a preparedness to perceive the world around us, recognise objects, orient attention, avoid losses – and fear spiders! Other mental activities become fast and automatic through prolonged practice.
Of course I’ve come across intuition and heuristics before. I was a psych major and spent untold hours as an acting student at university in Sandy Meisner “magic circles” acting impulsively. These things were either ideological (the former) or a bit of a pretence (the latter). I was always told that I was too ‘much in my head’ as an actor and not impulsive and ‘gut’ enough. I got better at faking it OR rehearsing so much at home that the thinking became unrecognisably fast, like remembering lines by reading them off the script in my mind. I’d argue that people were just ignorant of the calculations that they were doing in social situations and the amount of relationship math that was going on to interact with others were just the thing that they liked to call “intuition.”
Then I discovered I was autistic.
Well it was a long time coming to be honest. I was many times called autistic or aspie (amongst other things) when I was overloaded enough that the mask dropped. I rolled with it and tried harder. and harder. and … well it got to a point when I was working with others a lot more than usual in strategy and inter-team negotiation. And when my boundaries were crossed one to many times I did what comes naturally – I researched – and discovered my autistic self. Meeting more and more autists I realised that I was not just hard work, a broken person, or less – but a fully functioning autistic adult. That’s a conversation for another time.
Back to “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman I was reading about word association games and impulsive thinking and exactly how (neurotypicals) think about these things. Having thoughts that just into their mind when another is said as if by magic. You see this doesn’t happen for me. When word associating with my wife and she says yoghurt I think hard and come up with the yogurt that I just put into the fridge and make a conscious choice that I’d go with blue like the navy blue sticker that was on the carton. Or if she said smile I would conjure the list of emoticons and go to the next one in the list as a conscious choice. Impulsive thoughts to me are just cognition at speed.
I’ve posited this to my autistic psychologist friends and looking forward to what they have to say. From the recent feedback they seem to agree. We don’t do System 1 thinking. We don’t attribute malice to a big triangle that is following a smaller one (you neurotypicals are weird), we think about it and respond ‘appropriately’ (I realise this is laughingly subjective). It’s the same reason I believe that we autists have a large disregard for gender stereotypes with our high gender queer constituency and a high sense of justice in our shirking of nonsensical social convention. Of course I’m massively biased but I know that because I don’t do System 1 thinking. I think that we do an incredible processing job emulating heuristic thinking and doing so wonderfully well. But I’m sure that my thoughts on this will evolve when I talk to our incredible community further who will enlighten me more.
Your friendly neighbourhood autistic here. It’s autism awareness/acceptance/appreciation month so I thought I’d share a couple of great resources for helping yourself and other colleagues interface better, smoother happier, etc. It’s more specifically Autism Awareness Day on the 2nd April but I was busy with my ADHD taking me in many other directions so … here we are. And I’m going to just assume that you are aware and accepting of us so let’s move onto appreciation.
Of course it’s always good to start with “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” We’re all different and mileage may vary but these below are a good starting point.
Hunter Hansen is a great advocate for autistic professionals and he sounds like Owen Wilson so what’s not to like! All his content is great but especially relevant are the youtube vids
Ashlea McKay. Now I’m going to riff of the last Hunter video as a segway into Ashlea’s great advice. But first a bit about Ashlea. You’ve heard me mention her in a previous post about using a codeword (banana) to indicate informations processing time in a meeting. Well she regularly posts tips and thoughts about autism at work in her Quirk Monster Bites on LinkedIn. The one that jumps out at me everytime is about Open Plan offices. Yeah we all hate them. The ‘pop-in‘, the ‘have you got a second‘, the ‘I’ll just save you form overwork with my mew tiktok dance‘ – yeah it’s exhausting to us. You can read her take here
Dr Nancy Doyle is neurodivergent and her Genius Within (based in the UK) has a lot of great information about all neurodiversity and advocacy in the workplace. Her articles on Forbes and posts on social are also worth a read. Information neurodiversity is here
Neurodiversity Media by Rachel Worsley is the last trip on our tour and definitely not the least. There are an incredible number of free resources for autistic and ND workers and managers including case studies and advice. They also have Toolkits to help addressing issues and getting every one on the same equitable footing.
Thanks for reading my little autism appreciation and awareness post. Remember to read autistic/bipoc/trans/disabled voices and listen to what they have to say. Happy holiday if you are having one, and just general happiness even if you are not.