Settling into a new job, I was trying to explain the irreverent majesty that is Nerd Summer Camp1 to those of who have only seen it through rumour and the social media posts. Every time I try to explain TLCC to anyone I end up feeling like Judy Garland returning from Oz, and trying to convince her family that a magical place really exists.
From the emotional wave of ‘feels’ on social media, the dulcet tones of the Tessiturians (that majesty I was talking about), to the Campbellan journey of Jen Skelly’s lanyard2, it could seem pretty baffling. Even for those of us there it can be a lot to unpack.
On the way home I took some R&R in San Francisco while trying to wrangle my head and heart, like a parent collecting sugar fueled kids from a birthday party. With no small irony, I found some focus at a late night Jazz bar that serves (non-alcoholic) Kombucha cocktails. Yeah, I was that guy, minus the man-bun and ill advised facial hair.
Anyway I wrote some loosely SQL structured poetry over two nights, on a mini laptop at the bar (eating my vegan sliders). As I was in San Francisco (and had rewatched Mike Myers in “So I Married and Axe Murderer” again on the flight in), I went the full mile to gave it a spoken word recording. Given Andrew’s keynote unveiled his new love of great poetry I thought it’d be fun to share.
TLCC (In some ways)
In some ways, I’d forgotten what TLCC was like. Just how intense and overwhelming, joyful and exciting, frightening and sad.
The experience is something perhaps less like life, and better explained in Norse saga; breathed into existence by Walt Whitman; found in an attic as lost sketches for Picasso’s Guernica or Brett Whitley’s alchemy.
Feelings at TLCC seem taller, and broader. Like things that belong on the stage, poured from the musing of artists; not from the office that supports it3
And perhaps TLCC has answers to that as well. (the) Andrew Recinos quoted Lao Tsu in his closing address The wise have no minds of their own, finding it in the minds of ordinary people.4 And anyway, are there wise people at all?
Something that my friend,5 Mary French and I talked about,
when people say (sceptically or) in flattery, “Are you the smartest Tessitura person here?”
the answer is no … but also yes.
We are not the smartest,
except that we are, because we have the mind of the community behind us.
We are a gestalt;
An incredible hive mind of ordinary people, that do well on our own, but attain genius when we join together in odd harmonies.
And this becomes magnified, geometrically, in that liminal space of conference as our minds do not sum as single blocks, but create new 3rd and 4th opportunities between us that would never be possible apart.
We are more chemistry than physics.
With networking interactions happening at speed, and relationships (previously existing in green lines of commented SQL 6 or the brevity of forum assistance, between people at organisations, continents and hemispheres apart) are filled with both the details of real life, emotion of people who understand your most frustrating predicaments and greatest achievements.
In some ways, TLCC is like meeting your parallel earth doppelganger. That person with a similar experience; the same frustrations with “that” department; that has won “that” personal battle you’ve been fighting so long that you’ve lost the image of success;
and they can give you the key to success.
They are that person that also struggles to be seen 45+ hours a week, that validates all your experience.
They are your reflection, your potential energy, your soul.
In some ways, It’s unsurprising that TLCC is such an emotional experience.
 aka TLCC
 I’ve talked to my therapist extensively about the existential dread of wondering at the fate of Jen Skelly’s lanyard outside of the bubble that is pre-during-post conference that borders on the nature of quantum mechanics. Nietzsche said that we should live life as if the material world was all we could know, but if Jen Skelly’s lanyard only exists in the boundaries of a relative conference bubble, what is the fate of its existence post conference? Is there a post conference at all? Could all the lingering feels that we have post conference be the first evidence of quantum superposition in social media. Scary stuff.
 I really don’t agree. I see art everywhere. Art is in the person not the job. Like Jack (Rubin) said everyone is a little bit manager and a little bit leader in differing ratios. Punching out into the great blue yonder and mapping the path behind.
 not that I think Andrew is “ordinaryifying” Lao Tzu, at least that’s not his primary point. Regardless, I think that Lao Tzu who was aware of the conundrum first, and in essence, was setting himself up. I imagine he’s giggling at his clever joke still.
 and saviour and idol
 I had the pleasure of thanking Brian Wilbur Grundstrom for the number of times he appears in code comments in my database from stored procedures I’ve gleefully poached
So this is my last week at Sydney Dance Company and in rather than doing a big card and big gift we had individual cards and gave some money to a couple of animal sanctuaries that I really wanted to support.
The past 5+ years changed me immensly. When I started I definitely did not have qualifications of a unicorn. But the support from the incredible women who I’ve been lucky to call my bosses and mentors, and the unconditional love and support from my community at SDC and the #tessituranetwork has changed my life.
I will always be grateful for the opportunities to strive and push, grow and change. Opportunities to make small changes the in work life of colleagues with automations, or strategic inputs to the growth of the business be, it data driven decisions, silo removing technology, or EDI.
You learn a lot about your best self through goodbyes. Things that you overlook in your day to day struggles. I’m thankful for the inclusion and acceptance, never being patronised, compitence assumed. The lack of barrier between artists and admin at SDC proves that we are striving for the same goal
“We believe that dance changes you. To experience contemporary dance is to go on an inspiring and fulfilling journey. More than simply witnessing something beautiful or engaging with an art form, it is to be positively altered.”
Whether that’s through teaching dance to youth remotley during lockdown, choerographing exceptional works of beauty and relevance, or mentoring new DBAs that need support; we are working off the same playbook. To leave the world in a better place than when we found it.
Thank you for never treating me like I didn’t belong, thank you for giving me space to have a voice, thank you for allowing me to change and make change.
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.