22 November 2013

Sports Awards, Hall of Fame Awards...Speeches....

I always seem to be saying this but it really is true so maybe I should be getting used to it but November has been a very busy, hectic month for me.  Sooo much has happened, a lot of wonderful things but truthfully I have been struggling a lot.

Since coming back from Italy and the World Championships I have really struggled.  It is not something that is new, I always feel this way after the World Championships and I always forget (inconveniently) that this happens.  I get extremely anxious because that goal I was focusing on is suddenly not there anymore and yes it was something I achieved and that was great but it is a bigger change in my life than it may outwardly appear.  My training - diet and exercise regimen is so structured, I need adequate amounts of sleep, a little bit of remedial work, eating at specific times and of course training.  I have fixed appointments in my calendar and I have something to aim for.  Then I go away to a place I have never been before - where things might be done slightly different to the last time I went to a World Championships and then I come back home to a completely different scenario.  When I come home everyone wants to see me, wants to congratulate me and catch up.  All that structure and training routine is not there anymore, I can still go to the sessions but most of my team are not there, they are resting.  I can eat what I like, when I like.  It is all different.  It feels impossible to keep up that training regimen without the rest of my team doing it, without that clear goal and when those months of hard training are taking their toll.  I do need a rest, but I don't like it.  So I'm anxious, I have all these other things I can be doing but I don't know where to start or what to do.  I don't have the structure I need anymore and I know in a month or two I will be back in that hard training again anyway so whatever I do now is a gap fill.  It is tough to deal with and I have been very anxious these past few weeks, so much so it has been hard to get on top of things.

But nevertheless I have still had some great things happen.  For a start I was nominated for Northants Sports Disabled Sports Person of the Year, an award I won last year.  I was nominated by my friend Austin Hughes who came along with my husband and I.  My coach Alex Barrowman was also up for the Coach of the Year award after winning the district award.  I didn't expect to win as I was up against some tough contenders who had competed in the Paralympics, plus I had won the award the year before so I was incredibly taken aback when I was announced the winner.

My coach and I at the Northants Sports Awards
This was a great achievement but then I was invited to speak at Anna Kennedy's Autism's Got Talent Roadshow at Baston House in Bromley on the 16th November.  It is always an honour to be a part of these events.  Everyone performing is so talented at what they do and there is always a great feeling amongst those performing at the show.  I had a difficult and emotional speech lined up, I wondered how I would be able to deliver it without any problems but I needn't have worried.  Normally for Autism's Got Talent my speeches had been about the things I had achieved and telling my story, I felt this time that many people were already aware of my story and that I needed to deliver more of a message through my story.  I am proud to say that it went amazingly well, I had a lot of positive feedback afterwards and Anna requested that I do this speech again when I speak at her autism event at the House of Commons in December.  After then I will hopefully be posting and sharing this speech on youtube.

The very next day, 17th November, I was at the Martial Arts Illustrated Hall of Fame awards where I was put forward for an award.  I was given my award for determination and achievement in martial arts.  It was an honour to receive such an award in the presence of so many dedicated and talented martial artists.  There was also an opportunity to say a few words and five years ago I would have been too scared to but this time I saw it as practise to speak to such a large audience.  I spoke for only a few minutes but had standing ovations from some areas of the crowd which I didn't notice until I was told by people I was sitting with.

Martial Arts Hall of Fame Award

It has been wonderful to have been recognised both in local sport and also the world of martial arts for my achievements and I also really enjoyed speaking at Autism's Got Talent.  Now all that needs to happen is this anxiety to pass and to establish a good structure again.

Anti Bullying Week & Autism Awareness

Earlier this year I was asked to become a patron for Anna Kennedy Online, a charity promoting autism awareness and supporting those affected by autism.  I do not take this role lightly, in fact I see it as a responsibility just as I see the success I have had within my sport - I have a responsibility to encourage others, share my success, my stories in the hope they may help someone.  I remember vividly how I felt in my younger years and I want to be a role model to people who are struggling with confidence issues - believe in yourself because you are capable of more than you know.  So when Anna asked me to write something for anti-bullying I dropped everything to give this my full attention.

And here is the outcome,  can also be seen on Anna Kennedy Online website.

"Most people would walk straight past me in the street and never imagine that I am a three times kickboxing world champion, just like they would never guess I have Asperger’s Syndrome.  In fact upon meeting with people I used to go school with – fellow pupils and old teachers – it seems that I would be the last person any of them would have picked to have achieved what I have.  At school I was withdrawn, extremely quiet, very anxious with low self esteem and no confidence to speak of whatsoever. 

I grew up without a diagnosis and not really understanding why I felt so different, but in this case this is beside the point.  I grew up being made fun of, excluded, called names, taunted, pushed around, taken advantage of and it didn’t stop once I became an adult.  As an adult I was ostracised in the workplace, I had my privacy invaded and was emotionally bullied.  I was bullied at school and in the workplace because of my appearance, my sexuality and because I was different in how I acted and reacted to things.  Some of the bullying I experienced I did not realise was classed as bullying at the time and some of it was more obvious.  Being on the autism spectrum can sometimes make it difficult to recognise when the way you are being treated is wrong.

Bullying does not have to be physical, you don’t need to be hurt physically or beaten up regularly, spat at or the target of flying objects or a quick shove over.  Bullying takes on many different forms in both a direct and indirect way.  It can be as obvious as somebody calling you abusive names, taunting or insulting you persistently over things such as appearance, intellect, disability, sexuality, ethnicity, beliefs; or as a subtle as someone creating false rumours about you or purposefully excluding you from being part of an activity.  It can be carried out by one person or a group of people but the general aim is to establish a power over you, to make you feel inferior, vulnerable and maybe manipulate you into doing things you wouldn’t otherwise willingly choose to do. 

Along with advancements in technology bullying has also evolved.  Online or cyber bullying has become commonplace and prominent and ranges from harassment via prank calls, instant messaging, email, text message, online chat, facebook and twitter, to hot or not videos or other videos on facebook and twitter and even to defamatory websites, forums and the hacking of email, facebook and twitter accounts etc.  The internet is a wonderful thing but it has also enabled bullying to become more intrusive and even for people to be threatened anonymously.

Bullying in any form is not ok or acceptable.  It is not ok for anybody to hurt you, it is not ok for anybody to take things from you without you giving permission willingly and it is not ok for anybody to make you feel inferior or less by excluding you on purpose or telling lies about you.  It is also wrong for people to make you think you have to do certain things that you do not willingly choose to do in order to avoid any of the treatment described above.

I hated myself when I was younger, I felt lonely and I believed that I was no good to anybody and that I would never achieve anything.  There were even people who laughed at me when I started kickboxing, who told me I would never be any good at kickboxing – how wrong were they?!  I tried to stay in the background and avoid attention but I was not made to be in the background – just as any other person I was made to live a life that I chose.  And I chose kickboxing.  At 13 years old, when I was at school and bullied, I decided I was going to be a world champion, I was going to be the best.  And it was my focus on this that helped me get through the tough years I had as a teenager.  Things turned out well for me in the end but it was excruciatingly painful and you can’t take that chance.  You shouldn’t have to suffer in silence like I did.

If you are being bullied, if somebody is treating you in any way that causes you hurt and distress or even if you think some of the things you might be being asked to do seem strange and different it is so important that you tell somebody in authority like a teacher, your manager, your parents.  I know as a person on the autism spectrum that this can be difficult, I know that it is hard sometimes to approach anybody, let alone somebody with authority.  You don’t have to approach them directly face to face, you can ask somebody you trust like a friend to help you or you could even write a note.  But it is important you tell somebody because they can help it stop and keep you safeguarded.  Nobody deserves to be bullied or treated badly, for whatever reason.  We are all worthy of being treated with love, dignity and respect just for being who we are.  Different is not less."

Over the last month Facebook discovered Bitstrips, an app which allows you to create cartoons of you and your friends.  I have used Bitstrips (and this took me hours) to put together a comic about Autism and Asperger's Syndrome.  It was difficult to cover every characteristic without doing too much but I hope that I have found a good balance.  Anna Kennedy initially asked if I could do an anti-bullying cartoon for her 'Give Us A Break' campaign but the general awareness one seemed to take over as I realised how these cartoon images could really help to depict some of the challenges and characteristics of Autism and Asperger's.  This comic is now going to print but can be viewed in an album on Facebook, just check out the link below.

4 November 2013

World Champion...Again - Not As Easy As It Seems

Well I went to Italy and came back World Champion, my third world title.  And I am pleased to have achieved this, really pleased but that week was a tough week.  I should be really proud of how I handled it but last couple of weeks I have felt a little bit sad about it and I wasn't sure if I should write about it because at the end of the day I came out of it as a World Champion but this is exactly the reason I set up my blog for, to write about and bring awareness to things like this.

Going into a competition as the reigning two times World Champion it gets difficult.  There is the pressure of being the champion and people expecting you to win but also there is that how do you measure yourself and how do you show you get better?  Personally I measure against myself and my previous performances, so I set myself my own standards to beat.  Last year I had injuries and didn't feel fully fit, this year I did and I wanted to fight as well as I could - that's what it is all about putting on your best performance on the big stage and sadly I didn't feel that I quite did that.  As a person with Asperger's I find it difficult to let go of disappointments and need to understand why things happen like they do.  So I ruminate and dwell.  

I have said in speeches and in things I have written that it wasn't easy for me doing what I do and that there are barriers caused by Asperger's to my sport.  But even so sometimes even I forget these as "normal" and think really?  In Italy I was unlucky, a lot of things happened out of my control that all together meant that the issues I have were more prominent for me where normally I cope so well.  I rarely feel so on the spectrum as I did that week and chances are few people actually really noticed this.

Anyone who has Asperger's or autism in their lives, whether it be themselves or family, will understand the importance of or even how vital plans are.  I have to have everything planned out, step by step how I expect it to happen, I love my processes and knowing how things are going to work.  By now I get the plan and process of going to a world championship, this was my fifth time but I still need to reaffirm and go over that plan before we go away just to remind myself and to take into account travel plans.  I dont like to be away from what is familiar to me.  And this year things were different. 

I have been fighting with my team for over 10 years now and for the first time ever unexpectedly my coach was unable to come with us due to illness.  Before we even left I really didn't like this, it didn't feel right, I'm sure a lot of my team felt the same but for me it wasn't part of the plan and a major change.  I don't like changes to the plan.  We still as a team had to carry on but I really felt the loss of him not being there.

We set off and it took us 15 hours to reach our destination in Italy.  Now I'm sure there are few people who would actually enjoy a journey like this but can you imagine spending all that time in airports waiting around if you are on the spectrum or have a family member on the spectrum?  You guys will know exactly what I mean.  The journeys are usually long and I use diazepam to help me cope in airports, I needed two lots of medication on the way out.  All it does is chill me out so I don't reach the point where I shut or melt down.  I'm still coping with the sensory input and social stuff going on around me to an extent and I still present as I would normally albeit more spaced out.  I was diagnosed late in my life and have learnt to just "get through" things with minimal fuss despite how much pain it causes me, and you can't always tell when I'm in pain.  I have people say Jo why don't you do this, try this or ask for this - those things never occurred to me before because its not something I knew I could do.  So I wore sunglasses in the airport this year, which massively massively helped.

At the end of this journey was weighing in, possibly what I find the worst part of the whole fighting experience - my feelings and issues on weighing in are covered in my book, so I won't spoil it!  I get really anxious about it worrying I won't make my weight, despite this having never happened to me and there is a lot of waiting around which makes it like hell.  Not making my weight to me would be disastrous because I would not be where I was supposed to be, again it would be another deviation from the plan but on this occasion and as usual my weight was spot on.

So once that was over I thought I can relax now, eat what I like and look forward to fighting.  Wrong.  There was no choice of food.  And the food that was there was ridiculously priced.  Obviously another inconvenience for everyone but on the spectrum I had a plan of the kind of food I wanted to try and eat and when and I couldn't do this.  I respond like a child when I'm not able to do the things I want to do because I can't cope with it, so instantly I hated everything and my husband had a real nightmare on his hands.  The place to eat was full of everyone in the hotel all trying to get some food, buffet style - queues, lots of background noise which is hard for me to filter out.  I struggled a lot in there, I felt on edge, anxious and sick everytime we were there.  All of which probably only my husband would be able to tell.  The meals I had were not meals, they were random foods thrown together, a little bit of this or that on a plate.

Part of my plan for the week was that I was going to fight on a certain day, this didn't happen.  It was different to my plan and that was really tough for me to cope with.  I'd built myself up psychologically, prepared physically and it didn't happen.  That change in the plan again was one thing but there's also the need I have to fight.  Fighting relieves my stress and after a long stressful journey the sooner I have a good scrap the better.  Instead this time these feelings were left to build up.  I like to work my way through competitions and go through the process, on this occasion I went into the process at a later stage and for me that was difficult to cope with.

Then where we would be fighting, in a marquee in a field.  This was not so bad, there were the usual crowds of people shouting, cheering and clapping which is painful to me but which I am accustomed to, expect and cope with using my iPod and taking time out if I can.  The issue here was the lighting, the marquee was lit up by bright halogen lights shining onto the fighting mats.  They didn't startle me but they did feel like they were burning into me when I fought.  And when I fought for the first time I can remember there was no escape.  Normally fighting relaxes me and I lose track of all the shouting and what's going on around me, this time these lights were drawing me out of that place that I like to be in and it was as frustrating as hell.  I trained so hard, travelled all that way and I didn't feel like normal when I fought.  And because of that I hated myself.  Again most people are probably now thinking why?!  But when it comes to fighting, the thing I love to do the most, my feelings are always extreme.  I don't always notice how I feel until I feel in an extreme way and I blamed myself for being on the spectrum for not fighting as I wanted, for stopping me from escaping and taking away those moments I usually enjoy so much.   It was my fault because I had Asperger's and those issues were there because of that - which doesn't make sense but gives an indication of how extreme I felt.

Of course as well there were the social things to deal with too.  I love my team, who did amazingly well bringing back around 40 medals between 22 of us, and I do feel part of my team but when it comes to the social stuff I sometimes feel like a complete idiot.  It's hard to sit and not know how to get involved.  The fact I don't drink probably makes it a little harder.  At the after party again I hated I had Asperger's, like nobody liked me because of that - which is of course stupid but that's just how I feel sometimes because I'm frustrated and I feel like the odd one out.  The social stuff was harder because everything else had been harder.

Anyone who has heard me speak or who has had a conversation with me about Asperger's will know that I am entirely positive about who I am and that having Asperger's is part of that - so you know things were bad if I'm saying I hate myself because I have Asperger's right?  Any parent of a kid with Asperger's who has said this will know those are some hard feelings to be dealing with and I still am now.  It won't last long, it never does but it does happen and I can't not be open about those feelings now because these moments make me who I am too and if I hide them doesn't that make me ashamed of them?  I'm not infallible, I'm not perfect and I don't have all the answers - I have to show both the good and the bad.  On returning from Italy I had lost sight of my achievement and I couldn't recognise that I did well to get through the week but I do now.  Now two weeks on I'm still drained, exhausted and feeling the impact of the travel, the tough week and the months of preparation.  I'm struggling to adjust to a life without the focus of the world championships and to be social again after a week spent pushed to the limits of social interaction.  I've been quiet and withdrawn - this is not me ignoring people, I'm just too worn out to cope with people.  I'm proud to be a three times world champion but I'm also tired and not feeling my best.  This is all part of me and part of living with Aspergers and that's why I had to share this. 

Once again I'm really grateful to all those who supported me in getting to this competition and those who supported me once out there in whatever capacity.  That support means a lot to me and is crucial.  I love to compete on this stage and some of the challenges I faced are always there and expected but this time I struggled more with the process as there were some additional challenges I didn't expect or foresee.  This is all part of life and learning and I have chosen to write this because being on the spectrum it is important to me to bring awareness to issues like these that might otherwise not be seen.  Just because they are not as visible it doesn't mean they aren't there.  I want to congratulate all my team mates on their success too and to thank my husband for keeping it all together for me that week.

8 October 2013

I've been a little quiet...World Championships

I have been a little quieter than I would have hoped to be but there are two big reasons for this.  The first has been that over September I started writing a book, so all my writing efforts seem to have been concentrated there!  I am just over half way through now with just over 30000 words written and I haven't been writing every day.  Really excited about getting it finished now, it has opened up a lot of things that I experienced before and brought a lot of memories back - some good and some not so but overall the process has been quite therapeutic for me. 

The other thing that has been dominating a lot of my time and energy has been preparing for the World Championships.  And it is nearly here!  In the early hours of Monday morning we set off for Taranto, Italy to compete.

It has been a long and intense training camp.  I have had some little set backs along the way both in terms of injury and also some Asperger's related issues.  It has been tiring.  My ability to focus on other things always seems to be greatly compromised when I am in training like this.  I don't connect as well with the people in my life and they start to feel neglected.  It is also more difficult to manage all the different roles I fulfil such as with my business, so my social media presence has also been less over this period.  I don't feel like I ever get the time to sit and talk to people either online or offline.

But I have enjoyed every second of training and felt alive.  Well aside from not having certain things in my diet but that's just part of the game.  I know for sure that when we come back from Italy I will have a big gap in my life where training was and all my team mates that I have seen practically every day for the last few months.  These training camps are something bigger, the bond between all of us grows so strong even though we compete as individuals.  We all share a common goal, a common love and passion for our sport.

We had a little run out a couple of weeks ago at the FSK British Championships where we were given itineraries and our new kit for the Worlds.  I won my category in spite of some major sensory struggles that day.  I almost thought at one point that I may not be fighting but managed to hold it together enough to compete.  It has been a long time since I have felt it that badly in a competition environment and I knew once I fought I would feel at least marginally better.  I might have felt awful off the mat but fighting I felt great, better than I have for a long time.

And now a week before we set off to Italy, I know I have done all I can.  I am as fit as I could get through my training, I'm in as good condition as possible and I am ready - mentally and physically.  It won't be easy, it never is but I have trained for this, my whole team has trained for this and now this moment is ours to enjoy, relish and look back on over years to come.  To be able to say we did it, we trained hard and loved every moment because win or lose this is what it is all about.  And no matter where we are in the world, what we do, what we achieve or whether our futures see us all together again, for this moment now we are a team, we are as one and we are experiencing this together.  Let's do this team BCKA and show the world who we are.

I have had so much help and support into getting where I am now from all kinds of different professionals in helping me prepare and also in many kind people helping me raise the funds and donating to the cause to be able to do this.  To all of you, whatever role you have played, thank you from the bottom of my heart.

5 September 2013

Busy August - Clients, Books, Award Nominations

The month of August was completely hectic for me.  I set out with good intentions to blog regularly and do so much more but life just seemed to get in the way.  For a start World Championship training with my team at the BCKA started and for me this happened to coincide with a steroid injection into the back of my ankle for retro-calcaneal bursitis.  This instantly set my training back as I was unable to do any weight bearing exercise for a week!  So while all my team mates were running, sparring and doing padwork I was sat on the floor stretching and corework and then doing some cardio on the bike when I got in.  Overall I didn't cope too badly with this period but there have been moments where I felt intensely frustrated and also paranoid about injuring my ankle further.

Over August I ran a special offer within my business and saw an increase in weekly clients, which of course took up more of my time.  I also filmed for a Red2Green project talking about Asperger's and my journey to success.

I also decided that for some reason I didn't have quite enough to do and that now would be the perfect time to start writing my book.  So I am well into my first couple of chapters writing a book about my story and experiences which have led me to this point.  

Then my instructor told me I had been nominated for a Martial Arts Illustrated Hall of Fame award!  So overall August was a pretty good month, aside from the ankle problems.

3 September 2013

Kickboxing & the BCKA

I have been kickboxing with the BCKA since I was 13 and its fair to say it is more to me than just my passion.  Now there are plenty of people who have a passion for kickboxing and also for other things and some of these people achieve great things in whatever their chosen passion happens to be.  However for me kickboxing is what has given my life meaning, purpose and structure over the last decade.

It's widely known that people with Asperger's often have some kind of special interest - this will be a subject they have intense fascination over whether it just be factual information they collect or something they are exceptionally gifted in, whichever they are so fascinated they can acquire great levels of expertise, proficiency and even genius in the subject.  They are able to dedicate great levels of concentration and focus on just that one thing.  I have never had any interest in surfing and won't pretend to know a lot about it but someone on my massage course last year mentioned this surfer, Clay Marzo and a documentary film made about him and suggested I had a look at it.  Clay Marzo has Asperger's Syndrome and he is an amazing surfer.  The documentary tells about his surfing and his experience of Asperger's Syndrome and I have included a clip below reviewing the film.  

“This movie will inspire people to live in the moment and to always take the time to look a little deeper. People are amazing and you never know what is behind their eyes,” – Strider Wasilewski (Quiksilver Surf Team Manager)
In the clip above where Clay says that for him being in the water is where he feels at home, I can honestly say that for me when I am fighting is when I feel completely relaxed.  Kickboxing is like my escape from the rest of the world and without it I am totally totally lost.  You see when I am around other people I can't relax fully, to integrate with others requires a lot of work and a lot of energy on my part, I also have some concentration problems and like to do everything to a perfectionist level so when I try to get normal day to day things done this too can be a struggle.  I look at it as having to put in extra effort to get things done and this can be really draining to keep up.  Then there is also the problem with stress.  I can't always recognise when I'm getting stressed and I don't know how to deal with my stress, other than to fight.  Kickboxing takes care of my stress and comes so naturally to me that it is a relief in a world where most things don't.

I have had periods over the last couple of years where I have been injured and unable to train.  When I am unable to train fully it kills me.  That statement might seem a bit melodramatic and it is true that any athlete or sports person would be severely irritable when faced with time on the sidelines but you put that with Asperger's and the effect is multiplied by 10, at least.  I am a nightmare to live when I can't train because it hurts me not to train, more than I could ever show anyone, its not a punishment it is torture.  I like to have a purpose to everything and with not training I don't feel as though I have one.  Training is not just part of my routine, my daily routine is built around my training and to lose some routine is not good for me but to lose the foundations of my routine is disastrous.  I become highly anxious, highly stressed and this is even worse if I can't exercise in any shape or form to help me manage these feelings.  In a matter of weeks I usually transform to someone who can't sleep, is extremely irritable and basically rude to other people because I simply can't deal with them.  

BCKA team at World Championships 2012

I worry about a future with no kickboxing or training as right now I simply couldn't contemplate a life without it.  Right now kickboxing is filling up a lot of my time with preparations for 2013's World Championships in six weeks.  I'm training hard with my team mates at the BCKA, as each day goes by we are becoming a stronger and stronger unit.  And as much as I love to fight and love the physical elements of kickboxing what has also been so crucial to my development and my confidence has been being part of this team.  At the BCKA I feel I am in a place where I belong and where I am valued for who I am and in my life there have not been many places where I have been able to say that.  I am lucky to have fantastic team mates who are very understanding and supportive of me and my coach Alex Barrowman who has given me so many amazing opportunities over the years and helped to shape me into the person and fighter I am today.  Thanks in part to Alex I am a fighter in every sense, I have an attitude to not give up and the belief in myself to achieve. Alex and the BCKA are family to me.

My coach Alex giving me advice before fighting in World Championships

12 August 2013

Friendship and Forgiveness

I've had many friendships over the years but quite often they don't always seem to last.  I guess really I am not everybody's ideal friend, I am either terribly intense which can become tiring or I 'disappear' at times.  And this disappearing tends to be when I am focused on a goal or more often than not I am in training for a competition - I become a terrible friend because my whole life becomes dominated by what I am doing and anything that is not connected to that I'm not that interested in.  Now this enables me to be very successful in the things I choose to do but can also be quite isolating as I 'neglect' friends and family, putting things off until the competition is done.

It is not always easy for me to make friends either, I have always been terrible at making small talk, keeping things light and asking people about themselves.  I find it really hard to find topics of conversation that are not based on what I am doing, kickboxing or Asperger's.  In terms of general topics I only like to talk about things I know something about and when it comes to asking people about themselves I always assume if they want to tell me stuff then they will.

But having said that I have managed to forge many friendships which at the time seemed quite strong but in the end turned out not to be.  I have lost count of the amount of friends I have had where things were great then suddenly that friend just disappeared, and by this I mean that one day they just stopped speaking to me.  In some cases it was as severe as there was no reply and in others it was a gradual distancing but in all cases I have never been able to work out why and in each case there was almost like a grieving process.

There was one example of this a friend I believed to be a close friend, who I was able to confide in and who, at first, was so helpful and supportive through the tough times I had pre-diagnosis.  We worked closely together and I really looked up to this person and admired them.  It wasn't all doom and gloom, there were some good laughs and things along the way but then one day something changed.  Whether my unexplained behaviour became too much, I don't know but I do know that it was questioned whether I 'put on' my behaviour and this was incredibly hurtful.  At this time before I was diagnosed I was really worried, really anxious and afraid about who I was and what my life was going to be like, I actually hated who I was.  I couldn't make sense of things and as hard as I had tried I struggled to keep up and fit in.  It got to the point where this friend would no longer speak to me, where they would make fun of me when they thought I didn't know and even more they would get quite frustrated with me and much more.  It went from being someone I felt so comfortable being around and could talk to, to someone who it was uncomfortable to be around and who made me feel anxious.  Looking back now I see and understand that they didn't know I had Asperger's and neither did I.  

It is questionable whether or not despite this their actions were wrong but I chose to forgive this person and all the other people who made fun of me a long time ago.  I look at it in two ways, the people who I do not know so well probably never really mattered that much to me and if they want to make fun then as long as it is not hurting me it is them wasting their energy on me rather than on their own lives.  And the people who I considered close friends...well once they meant something to me and while yes it hurt the way they chose to act I don't need to hold on to that, I choose to forgive them for what they were to me and the things they did for me and concentrate on my own life.  That is the ultimate choice to concentrate on my own life, on being successful, following my dreams and being happy as I am.  People and things don't make me happy, what I achieve and do does.  Rather than concentrate on the people from my past I want to look after the people in my life now, the people who want to be in my life who understand my need to focus or why I might be a little intense, or even if they don't accept it.  I am lucky for all the people I have met and got to know, it is overwhelming how good some people are to me and this eclipses all those who have not treated me so well.

22 July 2013

Who's bright idea was it to run a business???

Late 2011 I decided I wanted to change jobs and become a sport and remedial massage practitioner.  I considered all the difficult social related elements involved with sport massage and felt confident I could rise to the challenge.  Since my diagnosis I have almost been like the child who has just taken the stabiliser wheels off their bike and thinks it will be easy to ride without them, I've just flung myself into all the things I wanted to do.  Being diagnosed late I'd always worried about who I was and never really pursued anything I wanted to do, my diagnosis was the figurative green light that signalled it is ok, go ahead.  So I went through a year's worth of training to qualify as a sport and remedial massage practitioner in 2012.

At the end of 2012 and beginning of 2013 I began the task of preparing to be self employed running my own business.  Why I wasn't at all fazed by this back then I have no idea!  Just over half way through 2013 I'm thinking why did I have this idea to do something like this?!  For someone who finds most of the world quite hard to work out normally entering the world of business and networking feels as though I have been tied to a spinning top.  For me social media was great...until I had to start being social!

But it is not only that world and it was not only the sport massage knowledge I had to learn, I've also had to learn how the 'system' works, I have to learn how to market and sell myself and consider how my business runs so that I am compliant with legislation and following best practice.  So now I'm thinking I should have booked myself on more courses than just the clinical sport and remedial massage diploma I did.

Fortunately for me the local NAS have been supporting me although supporting into self employment is a new things for them too.  They have been able to help me to work things out, structure my business and help give direction to my weeks by helping me to prioritise what I need to do first.  The whole process has been hard and I also recognise that I probably make things more complicated with my perfectionism.  I am also lucky that my husband has many hidden talents and has been able to assist with design and technical elements I might have struggled with.

However anything worth having in life is hard.  If it was easy we would all do it and then there would be no value in it.  But I am not one to give up or give in - as much as I would sometimes like to.  I've learnt to be incredibly resourceful throughout my life growing up undiagnosed and I'm not prepared to fail without knowing that I have put every ounce of energy into what I'm doing.  And to be honest right now I am not even thinking about the possibility of failure, I have invested time and money into the dream of a career I love and I'm not doing badly.  Things are probably taking me longer because of the additional challenges that come along with having Asperger's Syndrome and some delays with accessing support but I'm confident I have the right support now, I'm excited about the future and perhaps a little impatient for it to all really kick off.  I know there will be many more challenges and twists in the road but I will learn to deal with those and become a better, more confident person for it.  I worry about my naivety, picking up on 'bad vibes' and also of being taken advantage of.

And the good news?  Since I started doing sport and remedial massage my social skills have dramatically improved.  I have a lot more confidence when speaking to people and I'm more tolerant of small talk and chit chat seeing it as 'part of the job'.  Sometimes I feel terribly awkward and uncomfortable, I have absolutely no idea how noticeable it is but I put it to one side.  A lot of my clients know I have Asperger's, I don't hide it but nor do I drop it in when they come for their first appointment.  I'm happy to talk about it but also don't feel I need to talk about it, just like with anything else in my life it is just another thing in my life but not one that will be a barrier to the life I want. 

For more information on my business you can check out my business website www.topformremedial.com, find my Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/TopFormSportsRemedialMassage or follow me on Twitter @TopFormSRM

2 July 2013

Pets And Their Importance

So this is my second blog post in less than a day but I feel I really need to get this out of my system.  Last week I lost my best friend, my 14 year old black labrador Becks.

To some people animals are just animals but to me Becks was so much more than just a pet.  There are also people who feel their pets are more than a family pet and are a full family member but again to me Becks was so much more than just that.  Becks was my truest friend, my closest ally and trusted confidante.

At 12 years old, a year or so after my family had lost Kelly the family dog, I had begged and begged my parents for another dog and was absolutely delighted when they finally relented and we visited a litter of 6 gorgeous black labrador puppies.  My two brothers and I fell in love with Becks from the start.  He was the most placid of the puppies, so easy going and patient and these qualities never changed.  

Back in those days I was a quiet young girl with a passion for football, I hadn't even started kickboxing and so Becks was named after David Beckham - my hero at the time.  I also hadn't been diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome and having Becks proved to be so vital to me over my teenage years, we grew to be inseparable.  I spent hours training him and teaching him little tricks, Becks was always eager to learn and some worked out well and some not so well.  I'm sure a lot of people have had the dream of teaching their dog to fetch them the newspaper out of the door....well I taught Becks how to do this, it worked well until he decided it would be more fun to snatch the newspaper out of the door and bark at the closed door! But most of the things I taught him surprisingly worked well despite my younger brother's interference - I remember one occasion where I was trying to teach Becks 'fetch' in the garden and my little brother decided to chase him round the garden which of course Becks thought was much more fun!!

Anyone who has grown up with Asperger's Syndrome will tell you that it isn't easy but when you grow up not knowing that you have Asperger's Syndrome life can be incredibly confusing, scary and sad, not knowing why you are different - this was my experience.  In my teenage years I withdrew into myself a lot, I really struggled to connect with other people and to me it seemed that the people around me expected things of me that I could not give nor could I be.  Then there was Becks.  Becks who never expected me to be anything more than I was, who chose my company and completely adored me.  So many people loved Becks and to so many children he was almost like their puppy too, they all wanted him but he was mine and for someone who had often felt 'bottom of the pile' that acceptance and unconditional love was so so important even if it came from a dog.

Becks always knew when I was upset or something was wrong.  He was an incredibly affectionate and intuitive dog.  I remember going through school I would just want to get home and see him because I knew when I did I would feel calm again.  When there were bad days I would sit with Becks in the dark and somehow it all just felt better, he always stayed by my side and never left.  One particular occasion that I remember vividly is when as an adult I had an occupational therapist visit me at home, again this was pre-diagnosis and at that time I suffered a lot of anxiety brought on through the worry of not knowing why some things didn't make sense to me.  These visits were incredibly anxiety provoking for me and Becks must have sensed this.  Normally when someone came to visit he would fuss around at the start but then get bored and either sleep or play with a toy somewhere else but on this occasion he sat by my side, eventually jumping up onto the sofa by me and resting his head on my leg.  It was as though he knew I needed him.

Then came the day where I left home to make my own home with my husband.  I missed Becks so much and we regularly had him come to visit and stay over night until he became too old.  Despite the fact that I no longer lived at the family home Becks didn't forget me and everytime we were together it was just as it had always been.

Over this year Becks began to show signs of old age, physically he began to deteriorate and had difficulty walking.  It has been heartbreaking to see him slowly stop running around, climbing stairs, jumping over things and playing.  All year I have been dreading the day that I would lose him until I realised that I could never lose him.  Whether Becks is still here or not he has helped to shape my life and played a role I wouldn't have had anyone else fill.  So last Thursday when Becks suddenly became very ill I put everything to one side to make sure he was as comfortable as he could possibly be until we were able to have him put to sleep.  As sad and awful that day was I will always treasure those hours I spent with Becks in my arms hoping that what I was doing could in some way repay him for everything he gave me and I was glad to hold him in my arms as he shut his eyes for the final time.  One amazing, legend of a dog that I will miss terribly.  RIP Becks, my best friend.

"Nothing is nicer than having someone who appreciates you in the smallest things.. Accepts you in times of hardships. Comforts you when you're troubled. Loves you no matter what and is simply happy for having you in their life." - Ritu Ghatourey

Autism Show, House of Commons & Becoming a Patron for Anna Kennedy Online!

I have been up to so much recently that it has been difficult to keep up with blog posts, I thought I might as well combine all of these into one post - if I can manage to contain my excitement!  And it truly has been an exciting time for me, exciting and a complete whirlwind, so much so that I'm wondering how I am managing to keep up with everything and this crazy juggling act I feel I'm doing.  In truth I'm probably not keeping up too well hence the lack of blog posts BUT I am still learning...

The Autism Show - Excel Arena, London - 14th June 2013

There I was one day just minding my own business, still incredibly overwhelmed at the response from Autism's Got Talent when my mobile phone rang and who could it be other than Anna Kennedy!  I think I answered it, can't quite remember (I'm not the best at answering my mobile, depends whether I feel I can cope with a conversation) but the message was simple, "please can you come and do a talk at the Autism Show as part of Autism's Got Talent..." ended with the usual I need to know by yesterday!  Of course my answer was an emphatic yes, I always feel it is an honour to be asked to share my story.  

Next came the working out of the logistics...who can help me get to London?  I am terrible at working out where I have got to go - signs, timetables, directions, it is all confusion to me and you'd think I'd be able to pinpoint all the relevant information with my attention to detail but somehow it doesn't seem to quite work like that.  Normally Adam my husband has the unenviable task of dragging me through train stations and airports and to new, big, busy places however unfortunately on this occasion he was unable to take time off work due to the fact we were on holiday the following week!  Luckily I managed to find a friend to come along with me, Amy who was more than happy to come along given her profession as a speech and language therapist. she was quite looking forward to having a look around at the event.

Being the perfectionist crazy person that I am, I decided that instead of doing the same word for word talk I did for Autism's Got Talent that I would change it slightly.  I think that I had been doing a lot of work for my business that I had begun to realise how much of a challenge and achievement it was for me to be doing that as well as my more obvious achievements in kickboxing and I decided I wanted to balance that out a little bit.

I am still very new to speaking to larger audiences, I am used to big audiences of small people in schools or small groups of adults - so speaking to all these grown ups who also have some experience of autism is quite daunting.  I have always struggled with confidence and have never been the kind of person to speak up in groups and previously I would have done anything to avoid this kind of activity which my friend Amy reflected on having known me from my school years.  What has changed since then in me is a defiant belief that I can do anything I want to do and that I have a right to be heard and understood for who I am.

I really enjoyed doing the talk and after I had finished Anna Kennedy made the announcement that she would like me to become a patron for her charity.  It was an amazing feeling and honour to be asked to fill a role that I personally thinks carries so much responsibility.  Growing up as I have done and often feeling 'bottom of the pile' to others it was such a great feeling to know that Anna thinks that I can be a good role model to other people.  I really hope that I am able to live up to that and want to do as much as I can to help others and bring awareness to the challenges but also positive stories about Asperger's and autism.

House of Commons - Positive Image Celebrating Women in Sport

So there I was a week after the Autism Show on holiday and again Anna Kennedy calls.  'Jo, do you want to come to the House of Commons on Tuesday?'  Completely taken by surprise I thought why not.  Anna had been invited to an event by one her Tesco Mum of the Year friends Kate Hardcastle, it was an event as part of Kate's Positive Image Inspiring Confidence campaign with this event in particular celebrating women in sport.  Anna thought as I was a woman and heavily involved in sport that this would be a great opportunity for me.  I, of course, agreed!

So on Tuesday 25th June, my husband and I travelled down to London once again to the House of Commons.  Here we went on a tour and met Victoria Pendleton.  Anna said some really nice things about how great I was to Victoria.  My experience at the House of Commons was brilliant - I met some fantastic, inspiring women including Tina Boden who has since been in contact with me trying to help me to raise the funds I need to be able to compete in this year's World Championships.  Anna was great to me again in bringing my challenges in getting the funding to be able to compete to the attention of various people.

If anyone is able to help me out, however big or small, with getting to World Championships please go to this address http://www.gofundme.com/2kvedw - I really appreciate any help or support given.

20 May 2013

Winning & Working Hard

Winning and working hard are usually two things that come as a pair and it's something that I do on a daily basis.  Everyday I am working hard and everyday I am winning and I don't mean in a sporting sense.  

I grew up undiagnosed on the autistic spectrum and I can tell you that is not easy and certainly not fun.  To not understand or know why you can't seem to do some of the things everyone else is doing is simply devastating to your confidence and self-esteem let alone the fact not only could I not do those things but I also did not have the help I needed.  To have always felt on the periphery of social groups and like you never belong or fit in and to not know how to connect with others has always been something that made me feel unbelievably sad and terribly inadequate - never underestimate the value of those things.  On the outside I appear completely "normal" most of the time, especially to people who know me and who I am comfortable with, but all of the time I'm having to work incredibly hard just to keep up with the world and you.  To some people it is implausible to think that I could have difficulty with a lot of the things I do and to those people I can come across as being rude, disrespectful, insincere, awkward and even a little bit thick.  I am anything other than those things, I want and try so hard to please and help other people going way beyond what is required or even expected of me in order to do so but often this is not noticeable.

Since I was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome I have achieved a lot of things both in my sport and also in other areas of my life.  I attribute this to the attitude I have rather than to how much or little ability I have.  The most able and talented of people will not achieve without the right attitude to working hard - life is all about attitude.  I am fortunate to be able to say that to me Asperger's Syndrome means that I just have to work a little harder to achieve my goals than other people might.  I am determined and driven, I want to succeed, hate to lose and refuse to accept what people believe I can't do - I love to prove them wrong and make no mistake if you ever doubt me I will prove you wrong.

You could say that some of the traits of Asperger's Syndrome are like an extreme form of what other people experience in some of their daily lives.  To me Asperger's Syndrome is never knowing what to say to people, needing structure and organisation, struggling to understand what others mean to name a few but I'm sure there are many people that can say they have experienced times where they didn't know what to say or where to start.  For me it is just more extreme and an everyday challenge, the most trivial of things to you can be incredibly upsetting to me.  I have to have a purpose to everything I do, everything has to be logical and make sense - sometimes I need help to see the logic and without it I won't do what you're asking me to do.  

Asperger's frustrates me intensely on occasion - some days I resent the fact I have Asperger's to the extent that I resent myself and suddenly everything made harder by having Asperger's I can't do.  I do have those days but because of them I also find life with Asperger's to be quite rewarding.  When I have worked hard to achieve something and it pays off the fact I had to work harder makes it doubly as rewarding, the end outcome of some of my perfectionism can be truly worth the frustration and just being to true to who I am is such a relief after the years I spent worrying and covering up my difficulties through fear.  I enjoy my own company, I'm happy and content doing the things I love and I'm at peace with who I am - there are few people in the world who can say that.

So please forgive me for the fact I don't always look you in the eye, forgive me for not always picking up on how you feel or what you mean and forgive me when I do something you don't understand because I forgive you for not understanding.  Asperger's Syndrome and kickboxing are the perfect marriage for me because through having Asperger's Syndrome and growing up undiagnosed I know what it means to fight and I know what it takes to win - I have had to fight for everything I have, just to live in your world...and I'm still winning, everyday. 

17 May 2013

Sounds & Distractions

It's been a while since my last update and really I didn't mean for it to have been so long, I have been incredibly busy and stressed with it. I have just got a new tablet and new business phone and trying to adjust to these and also making the most of new technologies has proved slightly challenging even though I am pretty good with new technology. However here I am now, sat with said tablet writing my first update on it.

Sounds and distractions are the inspiration behind this post, please bear in mind that I'm writing of my experiences and not a generalisation of Aspergers Syndrome. Tonight I was sat synchronizing my google calendar and booking systems onto various devices and various other things and it was taking me forever. I was getting distracted by the tv which my husband was watching and other things that were going on. I just couldn't think straight. I found myself getting more and more stressed out, the more stressed I became the harder things were and the more difficult it was to shut those things out. People with Asperger's sometimes have problems with how they perceive or process through their senses, with hearing being one of them.

Sensory issues can manifest in a number of ways, they can be heightened or under sensitised, specifically in terms of hearing (since this blog topic is sounds) certain sounds can appear louder than others, all sounds can hit at the same volume or certain sounds can be distressing. In social environments I find it so hard to follow what people are saying to me if there are lots of conversations going on or sounds around simply because I'm unable to filter out all the things I don't need to hear. It can be frustrating and embarrassing as I just end up nodding along, smiling like I have some idea what has been said and hoping they don't ask a question or I don't say something that reveals I have absolutely no idea what has been said over the last half an hour!

On this occasion in the end I resorted to getting hold of my headphones and iPod as I so often do in order to regain my concentration...and it worked! As soon as I pressed play an instant wave of calm and relief passed over me and I could concentrate again. I think this works by filtering out all the things my brain has to work hard to work out replacing it by something easier to listen to, music.  My husband often moans that it is like I have a soundtrack to my life as I walk around the house with my iPod on or music playing through loudspeaker on my iPhone,  its that or the hifi is blaring and he can't concentrate the same way I can with music. I seem to need music to fully concentrate, he needs quiet to concentrate and the odd sound doesn't distract him!  Does anyone else do this too?  Or what do you find distracts or helps you?

Autism's Got Talent

In recent months I have had the pleasure of meeting Anna Kennedy on twitter (@AnnaKennedy1).  Anna Kennedy is a wonderful woman who has dedicated a great amount of her time to advocating for those with autism through various ventures conducted by her charity Anna Kennedy Online.  She has been recognised with countless awards and honours including an OBE.  Having already shared my story with her in support of her anti-bullying campaing 'Give Us A Break', I was proud to think that she thought of me as inspirational through the things I have achieved and how I have turned my life around from what it once was.

Then a couple of weeks ago Anna got in contact with me to ask if I would be able to speak at the show Autism's Got Talent that Anna Kennedy Online were organising with help from Pineapple Performing Arts School.  Autism's Got Talent is a show featuring performers who are on the autistic spectrum.  I knew straight away that this was something I couldn't turn down.  This celebration of the talents of those who had an autistic spectrum condition was something that I really believe in and I always have a lot to say so I said yes!

The show was to be held on the 11th May at the Mermaid Theatre in London with an estimated audience between 400-600 people.  However first there was a matter of a meet and greet at Pineapple Dance Studios on the Friday.  Myself and my husband travelled down to London on Friday afternoon, negotiating the London Underground was not a prospect I relished and I know full well that without my husband's help I would have ended up well and truly lost!  On the way down to London he said "I think I would really enjoy going to London if I were going on my own", so I asked him why he wouldn't enjoy it so much going with me to which he replied "because you're a pain in the arse"....that just about sums up me and travelling!!

Myself and Anna Kennedy
Upon arrival we met the wonderful Austin and Lisa from the AKO team, who between the two of them got us to Pineapple Dance Studios in rush hour.  Here we met Anna Kennedy and some of the performers including one young man who had come all the way from Canada for the event! 

The next day we had to go to the Mermaid Theatre where the teams from AKO and Pineapple worked relentlessly to ensure the whole show would run smoothly that evening.  Just before doors opened and the big event began we all had our photos taken on the red carpet with Anna Kennedy (see above).  I felt slightly nervous about my planned talk, I had struggled to fit everything I wanted to say into it but I adopted my fighting mentality and relied on the belief and conviction I had for what I had planned to say.  I had the privilege to share a dressing room with two extremely talented singers Madelaine Hardy and Marie Gorton and we all helped keep each other calm and reassured.

For the first part of the show and following my contribution I sat in the auditorium as a member of the audience and was treated to some magnificent individual and group performances.  There was something for everyone over the evening with a rock band, dance groups, singers, raps and even a panto scene.  I enjoyed every single performance with everyone stepping onto the stage showing themselves to be a true star of the show.  It was so inspiring to watch everyone demonstrate their talents and through doing so give encouragement to other people to be who they are and believe in the things they can do.

And as for my talk...well I think this went well.  It was the first time I had spoken at something that big and I am relatively new to public speaking.  I have received some incredible feedback which I am extremely pleased about and more than anything hope that I might have helped to inspire others on the autistic spectrum...or not on the autistic spectrum to never give up and follow their dreams just as I have done to become who I am today.

I would like to thank all involved in the production of this wonderful show, your efforts were very much appreciated!  All in all I had a wonderful time and met some great people.