Sunday, 20 July 2014

Fitting in a group

Recently I've gone to the training that I've spoken about. It was a training of two long (7 hours. That was way too much for me!) days, about how to best put your experience in your field to good use. I've learned some nice things in this training, that certainly helped me grow in my volunteering work.

On the other hand I've had a lot of struggles with this training. First of all, like I already stated, the days were too long. I couldn't cope with that, because of my chronic fatigue. This also made it even harder than usual to get along in the group. The trainers chose to go for a very loose training style, where everyone could chip in with their own ideas. When I asked for how long we got and how much they really wanted to know about my experiences, they said: "Anything you contribute is fine."

I tried explaining to them why I can't handle not having some clear perimeters, and if they didn't set out those perimeters, that I'd just interrupt them at any time and not know when to stop talking, which would be very annoying for them, and cost a lot of energy for me.
They kept saying: "Don't worry. Anything you contribute is fine."

I took those words to heart, so when they asked what we thought could be some tasks for an experience expert, I asked "Oh well, I've already done some things as an experience expert and I've done some research, so is it ok if I chip in here?" They said "By all means!" so I told them about some tasks that I knew about. Until I got interrupted by someone saying "Sorry, but... Could you please let someone else talk for once?"

I'm okay with someone telling me that I'm talking too much, since I know that I have difficulties finding the boundaries. What I dislike is someone telling me over and over again that anything I contribute is fine, even after I explained what the consequences could be, and THEN not just being pointed out in a nice way that I talk to much, but actually asking me if I could let someone else talk for once. That almost seems like I'm being rude and doing it on purpose to me! This truly hurt my feelings. I felt like I was as clear as I could be about my disability and the need for perimeters, and it still wasn't good enough. The rest of the day I hardly dared to say anything, out of fear of saying too much again. All I was doing was putting all my energy in navigating the unspoken social cues, making me miss a lot of what the training was actually about.

At the end of the training everyone walked away and I ended up in tears. I was absolutely exhausted, felt alienated and felt like I wasted my time and precious energy.
The person who was sitting next to me during the training also had Asperger's and understood what was going on. She stuck around to comfort me. The two people leading the training came up to me to talk to me.

I told them what had gotten me into tears. They said they understood and that when things would get too much to me next time, I could just leave the room. This didn't have the effect they hoped it would have. I didn't feel understood at all! I simply needed a teaching style with a clearer direction and clearer questions, so that I would know what was expected from me. Also, I wasn't the only one with this problem, just the only one with such a strong reaction, so the change wouldn't just be for me. In fact, there were just two people for who this loose teaching style really worked.

Rather than having someone walk away when the teaching style isn't fitting, especially when that person isn't the only one with that problem, please find a way that that person can join the group too! Of course, this isn't possible for everyone, in every situation, but I'm just asking for some more clarity, and it's not for just me. That's not a lot, is it? Also, we had a small classroom of about twelve people (I'm guessing here, I didn't count), so there's room for a bit more personalised teaching style.

But because there were no clear perimeters, I kept being busy with trying to navigate the social cues. This took all my energy, but it was also very clear to the group that I couldn't cope. In fact, because I was talking so much, I came across as arrogant, instead of helping. But when someone tells me everything I contribute is fine, and they want an answer to something I feel like I have an answer to, I don't feel arrogant when I answer. I feel like I'm helping. Isn't it bad of me to not answer when they want people to contribute? Aren't I helping by sharing my knowledge? I'd like the rest of the room to do the same! I can learn a lot from them too! But they don't seem to see those good intentions. They just don't want to put up boundaries, but want me to know... telepathically I guess... when and how to answer. If I don't, I'm arrogant (saying too much) or distant (not saying enough).

I told the trainers this, but they had a hard time seeing how, giving me time to walk away from the classroom, wasn't inclusion. Even when I told them that would mean I would be gone most of the time, not bonding with the group and missing a lot of information. They said I could just ask the group later what I missed.
The person with Asperger's, who was sitting next to me, came to my defence at this point. She told them she agreed with me that this wasn't inclusion and how much something like this can hurt a person.
The trainers said they would try to change some things and "I guess I'll better my life?"

Now, I have to say... They did make some changes the next day of training. They had a clear program and adopted a more clear style of asking questions. This helped a lot and I thanked them for it. They were happy about it, although one of them still had to make clear to me how difficult it was for her to do that...

Why did I write about this? Did I want to make you angry at the trainers? No, not at all. The trainers honestly didn't know what they were doing and that's why there are experience experts.
I'm writing about this, because this is just one example of why socialising in a group can go very wrong for a person with autism sometimes. This especially tends to happen in classrooms, where people with autism have to try to navigate unspoken social cues. Because these unspoken social cues are very unclear, the person with autism might have an unfitting response. This easily gets misinterpreted, isolating this person from the group. If this is being spoken about and there's an unwillingness to put in a little bit of effort, or the person is even being told to 'just walk away', then the isolation just gets bigger and the misunderstandings have not been solved. This, sometimes, can even lead to anger and bullying.
A little bit of understanding, and better yet, practical help, can often prevent a lot and make life a lot easier.