An introduction to Emergent Divergence

Hello and welcome to Emergent Divergence, my name is David Gray-Hammond. In this blog I will be discussing autism and autistic rights, addiction and substance misuse, and mental health (and the intersection at which they overlap). I myself am autistic with co-occuring OCD, psychotic experiences and complex trauma, i am also in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction.

The goal of understanding and acceptance of these issues is a journey that i hope you will join me on as i seek to delve into the viewpoints of those who hold them close to their hearts. I look to advocate on the behalf of those whose voices may not necessarily be heard..

I hope that you find this blog informative and thought provoking.

If you enjoy my writing, you can buy me a coffee at https://ko-fi.com/emergentdivergence

You can also follow me on Facebook, Twitter and read more of my writing on NeuroClastic.

Find a link to a session I did with Aucademy on autism and addiction here.

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What does it feel like to be autistic?

Autism. What does it feel like?

This was a question posed to me in a facebook group today. I’m not sure exactly what the person asking was looking for, but it is actually an incredibly complex question. So naturally, I’m going to try and answer it in a short and succinct way. I want the answer to be relatable.

What does it feel like to be autistic for me?

The simple answer; it doesn’t. When I sit alone in my room, listening to music, watching TV, writing, it doesn’t feel like anything. I have been autistic my entire life, I have nothing else as a point of reference. I do not know how it feels to be neurotypical, or non-autistic. I don’t even know how being autistic feels to another autistic.

My experience is solipsistic in nature. Without that point of reference how can I know what it is about being autistic that feels so different to being neurotypical? This is me, I have never been anything else. When you ask what it feels like, I don’t know, because it is impossible for me to tell where my autistic experience ends and my general human experience begins. Autism encompasses every part of my being and always has.

I can however explain how it feels to be autistic in a neurotypical world. As soon as I set foot into the world, surrounded by other people, I become hyper-aware of my differences. Being autistic in a neurotypical world is like watching a French film, with Japanese subtitles, and I only have a GCSE-level qualification in German.

Let me expand on that a little. I have some idea of how language works, I have been using my own language my entire life; but everyone else seems to be speaking another language that I can barely grasp, and the more they try to spell it out, the more confusing it gets.

The world is full of unwritten social rules that the neurotypical world seems to intuitively know, meanwhile I am in the corner wondering when the hell everyone learnt these rules, or worse, trying to work out why these rules exist in the first place, or what purpose they serve.

Another thing that makes me very aware of my differences is my sensory profile. I smell things before anyone else, I hear noises that others don’t notice, bright lights feel like someone is shining a high-powered laser into my eyes. I am bombarded from every angle by sensory input, and yet I see so much beauty that doesn’t even seem to be noticeable to neurotypical society.

This is what I feel. It’s not a feeling I can directly pinpoint. There is no feeling that makes me go “I feel extra autistic today!”.

Asking an autistic person what being autistic feels like is SUCH a complex question. We don’t have a non-autistic point of reference. I just hope that today I have come some way towards answering your question.

OPINION: Crisis-driven intervention in mental health is threatening people’s lives

It’s no secret that mental health services in the UK are chronically underfunded. Our current government has expressed time and again it’s disdain for universal healthcare, and has funded it accordingly. As a result of this under-funding, mental health services in the UK now operate a “crisis-driven intervention” model. This is incredibly dangerous.

So what does this model look like? Simply put, it means that services will only intervene when things become to bad to ignore, when the person has reached “crisis” point. For some this can look like suicide attempt, some may be left to starve near to death from eating disorders; for me it meant no one acted until my paranoid delusions were so severe that I was a risk to myself.

Crisis-driven intervention is what happens when the system lacks the resources for early-intervention services. Early-intervention could allow for much swifter identification and treatment of mental health conditions, mitigating some of the various harms associated with such conditions. If we could stop things from reaching boiling point, then we could stop that moment where it spills over, creating a mess all over a persons life.

This is a cause for not just the activists and advocates amongst us, it is a cause for all of us. Any one of us can develop a mental health condition, it is important to know that the support is there if we do.

We must vote for governments that will give appropriate funding to our vital health services, and we must petition the current incumbents to preserve our wellbeing. I have been the person who falls through the cracks, and it is a place that I would not wish on anyone. We can all have an impact on this topic.

It’s also vital that services operate a service-user involvement model, so that treatment policy can be guided by the service-users, who by necessity become experts in their own condition and treatment. Having been involved in service-user consultancy for several years, I know first hand how vital such endeavours are.

Crisis-driven intervention models are unacceptable. They are literally costing lives. How many people are out there who received help too late? Perhaps we will never know the full figure, but what we can do is ensure that the appropriate services are there for the generations to come.

OPINION: Abstinence-based drug programmes are not fit for purpose

If you have followed my work, I think it’s likely that at some point in your life you may have experimented with recreational drugs at some point in your life. I don’t say this because I assume that my followers are drug-users, I say it because you are human, and drugs and alcohol are a staple of society. It’s fair to say that the vast majority of people have probably tried so-called “soft” drugs like cannabis in their life, and in fact many in the autistic community speak openly about self-medicating with cannabis.

This in particular is why I take such umbrage with abstinence-based approached to drug and alcohol education. These programmes teach people that drug and alcohol use is a shameful secret, to be hidden away. This in turn increases the risk of harm. Harm-reduction based approaches are vastly superior. We should be teaching people that drug and alcohol use is a normal part of society, and how to approach it in a sensible and safe manner.

Let me step back for a minute. I’m not saying we should teach people that substance use is okay. Substance use is dangerous, and associated with many negative life outcomes, but we should be honest with people about how prevalent it is our society. Kids in school should be taught the genuine effects of these drugs; physical, psychological, and socioeconomical. They should also be taught that if they DO use drugs, there are measure they can take to protect themselves from some of the more immediate harm.

Abstinence-based approaches are a symptom of a society that criminalises substance use. Substance use is a public health issue, not a criminal one. By criminalising substance use we create a black-market for them. It happened with drugs, it happened with the prohibition of alcohol. Entire criminal enterprises survive off of the illegality of the sale and posession of substances. I could write a whole piece on this topic alone, and most likely will.

Back to the point. Drug and alcohol related deaths will continue to rise until we move over to harm-reduction models. This can look like in school education on substance use. This can look like appropriate funding of mental health services. This can look like appropriate and affordable housing. It can also look like the decriminalisation of drug use. This list is non-exhaustive

Until these things are done, drug use will remain prevalent in our society. No amount of pleading and scaring will keep people away from recreational substances. We MUST embrace the fact that drugs and alcohol are here to stay, and move forward with commonsense approaches to that fact.

Support Needs vs Functioning Labels: How I talk about my strengths and struggles

It is well established in the autistic community that functioning labels are outdated and harmful in that they diminish a persons strengths (“low functioning”) and deny access to support for others (“high functioning”). For decades, functioning labels have been used to separate autistic voices from one another and invalidate many of us through the well known “not like my child” gambit.

Functioning labels, in my opinion, are problematic for two reasons. Firstly, they assume an unchanging field, treating functioning as if it were something that remains the same throughout life. My ability to function (as with all autistics) is constantly changing. Functioning can be wildly altered by environmental factors, and how many “spoons” we have left of a day. Functioning can change in the space of days, sometimes hours and minutes.

Secondly (and this is perhaps the most ableist part of functioning labels), is that at the core of them, functioning labels measure one thing, a persons economic value. Those deemed “high functioning” are more able to pass as neurotypical, there by having greater access to employment and the ability to pay taxes. Those deemed “low functioning” are typically less likely to access employment, meaning that they do not pay taxes and often require disability and welfare benefits to survive.

This second point is one of my personal pet peeves (to put it politely). It is an incredibly ableist measure to value economic value over the value of life itself.

Personally, I prefer to talk about myself in terms of support needs. This can change with me. I might wake up one day and feel that I have low support needs, able to plan and perform tasks on my own. On another day, or even later the same day, I may have higher support needs, requiring assistance to do things that some people would consider basic.

I like support needs because they make no assumption about my value to society. They shift and change, and can help me celebrate the positives, while asking for help with the more negative aspects of my disability. I can talk in terms of my general support needs, perhaps noting that on a normal day I require moderate support, while having the opportunity to ask for more in-depth support when I require it.

The important part of talking about support needs is to recognise that it is a moving target. No one person has the same support needs throughout their life. This is even true of neurotypicals. Does a neurotypical child have the same support needs as a neurotypical adult?

It is vital that we stop speaking about autistics in terms of fixed assumptions and economic value. Our lives have value beyond our ability to generate profit. We must cut out our own internalised ableism, and then help the rest of the world to do the same. One of the first steps for this, is to stop using the outdated model of functioning labels.

Celebrate your strengths, and never be afraid to ask for support with your struggles.

Suicide Prevention Week: A reflection

“Who cares if one more light goes out?

In a sky of a million stars

It flickers, flickers

Who cares when someone’s time runs out?

If a moment is all we are

We’re quicker, quicker

Who cares if one more light goes out?

Well I do”

One More Light, Linkin Park

This week marks suicide prevention week in the US, and September 10th will mark suicide prevention day in the UK. Suicide prevention is a topic close to my heart.

My name is David, and i’m a suicide attempt survivor.

According to the World Health Organisation, there are close to 800,000 deaths from suicide every year, equating to one death roughly every 40 seconds. Read that again; every 40 seconds, another life is lost to suicide.

That’s 800,000 people EVERY YEAR that are suffering so immensely that they can no longer continue living. I know this feeling, I have lived this feeling. My skin carries the scars from the numerous attempts I have made on my life, my liver carries permanent damage from the drugs and alcohol I ingested to cut my suffering short.

Men in particular are very vulnerable to suicide. My opinion is that as men, we are subject to toxic expectations; “boys don’t cry”, “man up”. As men we are expected to hide our pain, being emotionless walls of muscle.

Marginalised groups such as autistics face suicide prevelance 9x that of the general population. Estimates suggest that over half of trans teens have self-harmed or attempted suicide.

If we want to prevent suicide, we must dismantle the toxic expectations and standards of the world. We must combat toxic positivity. We must be brave enough to stand up and speak our truth, in the face of those who would rather ignore our plight.

We need to create a more compassionate world. One where people are not accused of attention seeking for reaching out and struggling. One where we extend to our fellow human the same love and acceptance that we extend to our friends and loved ones.

There can be no rest while innocent people give up there lives in search of an escape from suffering. We must be the change we want to see within the world.

This September, gift someone compassion, and make the world a brighter place to be.

If you are struggling to keep going at the moment, I beg of you, reach out. Do not make a permanent decision off of feelings that I promise are temporary. Life is worth holding on to, by your very existence you have changed the world. This is a world that is better with you in it. I would rather talk to you about your suffering (and do my best to help where I can) than attend your funeral.

Who cares if one more light goes out? I do.

ABA: A symbol of fear

Over the years many wonderful and brilliant advocates and activists have spoken out against Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA) and why the compliance-based therapy is harmful to autistics, but why do such therapies exist?

Simply put, ABA is a symptom of a society that values neuronormative ideals over the beauty of human diversity. To take it a step further, it is a symptom of a society that FEARS neurodiversity. Somewhere along the line, society decided that neurotypical standards were a bar that we must all meet, shunning and oppressing anyone who dares to exist outside of those standards.

This fear is born of ableism. It is the same ableism that causes parents to kill their disabled children, it is the same ableism that makes children bully autistic kids in school.

Fear is an insidious thing, from fear rises discontent, and from that discontent comes hatred.

We can campaign against ABA and it’s related practices for as many years as we like, but until the rotten core that is ableism is dealt with, ABA and quack treatments will continue to run rampant through vulnerable communities. For the sake of all autistics, and all autistics to come, we must dismantle ableism. We must replace the hatred of difference with the beauty of diversity.

This starts at home. We must search ourselves for the ableism that so many of us have internalised and pull it out by the roots. We must teach our children not to fear those who appear different, but instead embrace the beauty of a diverse world.

The future is bright and diverse.

Adjusting your social group to meet the needs of sobriety

Achieving sobriety is an uphill challenge. There are a lot of complicated moving parts that contribute towards a person finding sobriety, but one that needs to be talked about is social groups.

Social isolation can increase the risk of relapse, and for this reason it is important that we as sober addicts have a social group that we can interact with in whatever way works for us; but how do we ensure we have a safe social group?

As substance addicts, it is likely that our friend groups have consisted of other drug and alcohol users. In my experience, it is impossible to maintain sobriety while surrounded by the very thing we are trying to escape. In order to let go of our past behaviour and embrace the future, we often must make the difficult decision to remove certain people from our lives.

When I achieved sobriety, I was forced to cut off a lot of people. It was a difficult but necessary step. The good thing was that the people I had left behind during active addiction, slowly rejoined my life, and I also met new people. So what were the needs of my sobriety?

I needed friends who were going to support and encourage me in my sobriety, celebrating my successes with me, while helping me work through my struggles. I needed friends who would not tempt me with drug use. While my friends do enjoy the occasional drink, none of them pressure me to partake, and none of them treat me differently for being the one person who chooses not to drink.

On the other hand, the people I removed from my life did nothing but bring drugs and alcohol to the forefront of my mind, and make me feel uncomfortable for not wanting to partake. They couldn’t fathom a life without using, and that was what I needed to get away from.

The friends I have now go out of there way to help me protect my sobriety, they consist of friends I have known since childhood, and the new people I have met along the way. I explicitly trust my friends, and know that they would never put me in harms way.

This has been vital to maintaining my sobriety. My social group has been a driving force in my new life, and while it has been difficult leaving others behind, it was necessary to cut that toxicity out of my life.

One piece of advice I would like you to take away from this is the following; if you are struggling to find sobriety, start by looking at the people around you. Changing your social group is not the only path to sobriety, but it is a vital step in honour of this.

Disclosing your neurotype: My battle with authenticity in a world filled with stigma

“Every time someone steps up and says who they are, the world becomes a better, more interesting place”

Captain Raymond Holt, Brooklyn Nine-Nine

I try to live my life being my true self these days. I am upfront about who I am and what my experiences are with as many people as I can, unfortunately this was not always the case.

There was a time when I was afraid to tell people about being autistic, and my experiences with psychosis and addiction (yes, I do consider psychosis and addiction to be tied in with my neurotype, they have shaped the identity that I have today).

Why was I afraid to be my true self? Simply put, it’s the stigma surrounding my existence. Even without psychosis and addiction, being autistic is complicated in a world dominated by neuronormative rhetoric. Being an outlier means facing the judgement of others, for reasons that are so numerous it would be impossible to list them all in one piece of writing.

People have preconceived notions about what it means to be autistic. I have had people doubt my autism diagnosis because I was both too normal, and not typical of the idea of autism they had built up in their mind. Some expected me to be a savant, while others believed that I should be incapable of taking care of myself on even the most fundamental level.

The neurotypical opinion of autism has been shaped by a world consisting of functioning labels, while it ignores the very fact that ones functioning is a constantly moving target, shifting from day to day, hour to hour. What I am capable of on Monday, may be impossible on Tuesday.

For this reason I know that when I disclose my autistic neurotype to a person, it is likely that they start picturing something that is very different from the person I actually am.

This is compounded when taking my experience of psychosis and addiction into account. Society has spent at least the last century painting the psychotic as dangers to society, and presenting addicts as a worthless drain, stealing resources from the more deserving for what they consider a moral failing.

It’s terrifying to face up to. How does one break these preconceived notions and show themselves for who they truly are? I know that for anyone getting to know me, there is a great deal of learning to be done about what it means to be me. I don’t ever want someone to feel uncomfortable around me, but I also need to be sure that whoever I am discussing my experience with is going to take the steps necessary to leave behind the ideas of the past.

I am blessed. The people in my life currently are incredibly accepting, and where they have an incorrect idea about me, they are willing to learn without judgement. So many I know are not as lucky as myself. They face the judgement of the world, and have to choose whether or not to disclose their neurotype in a world that has literally murdered people like us for simply being who we are.

This is why the work of advocates is vital. We must continue to dismantle the stigma surrounding neurodiversity and mental health so that people can see us for who we are. The diversity of minds in this world is one of the things that makes life beautiful, and we must fight to show the world our beauty.

It is up to us, as the voices of lived experience to teach the world to take pride in it’s own diversity. Where it is safe to do so, we must always be authentic. We no longer live in the shadows; it is time to stop being the proverbial wall flowers and step onto the dance floor.

To my friends and loved ones that have supported me in being my authentic self- thank you. I will continue to show you what I love about being me. Thank you for celebrating my strengths, and supporting me through my struggles.

To the autistic person struggling to disclose their identity- you are beautiful, don’t ever be ashamed to be the real you.

The language of addiction through the lens of the autistic community

Anyone who has spent time withing the online autistic community will be aware that there are particular ways that we as autistics prefer to talk about autism. Identity-first language is vastly preferred by the majority, with many rejecting the phrase “person with autism” while opting for “autistic person”.

These well documented preferences have had a significant impact on how I talk about myself as an addict also. I have different ways of talking about addiction depending on what stage of recovery I am talking about.

I myself am almost four and a half years sober as of writing this, and consider myself to be fairly confident in my recovery. I have overcome the initial stages of stopping using, and learnt important techniques to keep myself from returning to using. While I am at this stage, I am aware that I am just a few bad decisions away from using again if I am not strict with myself. For this reason, I refer to myself as an ADDICT. Take note of the identity-first language. I am no longer “suffering from addiction” as many would say. Instead I acknowledge that addiction never goes away, but the core experience of active addiction can end.

When I refer to people prior to entering the sobriety stage of recovery, I usually say “experiencing addiction”. The person is still experiencing the negative effects of actively using. I tend to shy away from the word “suffering” because people who are in active addiction do not need the word “suffering” to remind them of where they are at. Addicts know they are suffering when using, and using the word does nothing for them, and perhaps further stigmatises the experience of addiction by turning it into a pity party.

Let me tell you something as an addict. I don’t need your pity. Empathy, yes. Pity, no.

Addict can also be used as an umbrella term to refer to anyone with a history of addiction. This is because, much like autism, addiction is a core part of our identities. Those of us who have experienced addiction know that it never goes away. It is something that we carry with us throughout the rest of our lives. Addiction is more than just using drink and drugs, it is a particular way of thinking and behaving that leads us to compulsively repeat actions that bring us good feelings or relief.

Addiction is so much more than the medical model. It is a series of adaptive changes that happen within a persons mind. It comes with a lot of negative behaviours, but also creates people who are a perfect fit for altruistic work. As an addict in recovery, I have been able to turn my compulsive behaviours into something that I call “radical kindness”. With radical kindness, you take the single minded drive to use, and exchange it with a focus on helping others. This has been key to my recovery.

Being autistic has taught me that the way we talk about ourselves, directly influences our perception of self, and the perceived energy that we put out into the world. When we focus only on suffering and negative behaviours, we paint a negative picture of ourselves in our mind. There is no need to other ourselves by using the pathologised terminology that the medical community and the media has used to discuss addiction for decades.

Being autistic and an addict has created a lot of challenges for me, but it helped me settle on one immutable goal that I will focus on for the rest of my life; help the world feel a little less broken. Addiction is a selfish state, always seeking personal relief at any cost. For that reason, we must focus on others in order to maintain recovery. Altruism is the gift that sobriety has given me, and I intend to make good use of it.

Rediscovering my boundaries after achieving sobriety

Drugs and alcohol are endemic to our society. It’s impossible to go out socially without coming across them. There were a lot of complex reasons for why I used drugs and alcohol, but a big one was that they helped me feel more comfortable in social situations.

As an autistic person, I have never found socialising easy, at least not in the way that my neurotypical peers have. I am an awkward and anxious person, constantly second guessing myself and working hard to maintain a neurotypical mask. Maintaining that mask has been a heavy burden, which is part of why drugs and alcohol appealed to me.

When I popped a pill or snorted a line, I was the same as the others around me. Suddenly I was in a world where people interacted with me in the same way that they did everyone else. My anxiety was easier to cope with, and I could flit from situation to situation in a social setting.

The problem was, that my mind and body had boundaries, and when I was using, I did not recognise those boundaries. I would constantly push myself beyond what I had spoons for. The resulting burnout would cause me to use more drugs and alcohol just to cope with the feelings of emptiness. I was trying to pour from an empty cup.

When I achieved sobriety, I had to work to reestablish my boundaries. I no longer had my chemical fix to help me cope with a world that was, quite frankly, hostile to people with my neurotype.

I was still able to enjoy socialising with my friends and family, but at a certain point I would just hit a wall. In the space of seconds I would go from happy and laughing, to withdrawn and unable to speak. Often I would find myself needing to escape situations, feeling panic creep up on me. Sometimes I would take myself off to the toilets and have a meltdown out of sight of those I was socialising with.

I had to learn what my limits were. I had to anticipate that moment when my spoons would run out, and listen to my mind when it said it was time for me to go home.

This wasn’t easy. I wanted so much to be like everyone else. It took me some time after achieving sobriety to find a place of self-acceptance. For a good two or three years I beat myself up for not being like everyone else. I would try and force myself to be like everyone else, while knowing deep in my heart that this was causing me a great deal of psychological harm.

An important part of establishing my boundaries was self-acceptance. I could not have found it without discovering the online autistic community. It seems absurd to me that no one tells you that there is a huge community of autistics, I had to discover it for myself. I suspect some may never find the community because they do not use social media.

The autistic community taught me to love who I am, that it was okay to have boundaries that were different to my allistic peers. Even more so, they taught me that it was okay to have boundaries that differed from other autistics. Suddenly I was in a world where it was okay that everybody was an individual with individual needs and strengths.

I learned that it was okay not to have the energy to maintain a neurotypical mask, and I learned that it was okay to walk away from situations before reaching the point of panic or meltdown.

I am blessed to have very supportive friends and family. They help me maintain my boundaries, and have become adept at recognising when I have met my limits, often encouraging me to go away and do what I need to do to regain those ever so elusive spoons. I can now walk away from uncomfortable situations without blaming myself. I have learned to love my own self-advocacy.

Of course, learning to respect your own boundaries is a piece of work that never ends. Our boundaries shift and change as our lives progress, and what may be reasonable on one day, may be impossible on another. I am constantly learning how to budget my energy.

Some days I still make mistakes. Even recently I have gone through burnout because I over worked myself both socially and professionally; and yes, socialising IS work. However, I have learned to accept my mistakes and learn and grow from them. I no longer attack myself for failing to meet my needs, humans are imperfect, and autistic humans are living in a hostile world that constantly works to oppress them.

If you’re new to sobriety, I want you to know that it is okay to make mistakes. Sometimes we screw up. It’s an uncomfortable fact of life, we can’t be expected to do everything perfectly. The main thing is that we do not allow those mistakes to snowball, and make us give up. Life only moves forward, so once you make that decision to embrace a more positive future, you can’t look back.