Autism Interview #78 Part 1: Jo Farrell on Employment, Mutism, and Studying Buddhism

Photo by Jo Farrell

Jo Farrell is a British caucasian and UK-based mother (to an adult son), blogger, marketeer, amateur photographer, and practitioner of Nichiren Buddhism. She blogs at The Autistic Buddhist to support other people on the spectrum offering a positive, inspirational approach to autism and is an advocate of human neurodiversity. This post is Part One of a two-part interview. This week she shared information about her past and current employment experiences, her difficulty with mutism, and how she has benefited from learning to practice Buddhism.

Describe your current line of work.

At the moment, I’m at college on a 2-year course in furniture restoration. I’m particularly interested in wood restoration, gilding, and reupholstery. At the age of 50 in 2013, I opened a vintage shop selling furniture, furniture paints, lessons in furniture painting/design, and bespoke furniture redesign. The shop was leased to me, and I closed my business after footfall in the area became silenced by the arrival of expensive parking meters. I didn’t have the money to relocate.

Up to the age of 50, my career was office based. I worked in marketing and communications with a focus on strategic data-driven marketing.

What are your daily responsibilities? 

At the moment my responsibilities are those of a full time student! My career in marketing started in advertising agencies, and then I moved through the account executive and manager roles to director. Then I crossed into Financial Services to work on the client side for the private and public sector, eventually working as an experienced marketing contractor at age 45-50.

I love, love, love working in marketing. I had to keep learning as the industry changed and evolved. I ended up mostly in campaign management, writing strategic plans, research, database marketing, direct communication design, and copywriting. Eventually, I was the oldest person in the marketing department and it became more difficult than ever to be part of a team with an average age of 29. I have struggled with different kinds of sexism in the workplace, and ageism was like hitting a brick wall. I am happy to start a new path with furniture design/restoration.

What do you enjoy most about your profession?

In my marketing profession, there is nothing as satisfying as identifying an objective and target audience to communicate to, designing a campaign, making it happen, and maxing out the agreed targets. It is always an energetic, creative process and is rooted in the dynamics of human psychology. I learned to plan, manage, and deliver marketing campaigns very successfully.

As a sideline, I used to sell vintage and antique items in markets on the weekends, then moved onto ebay and wanted to have my own small, local business. Eventually. I saw an opportunity and went for it. It was exhausting, yet very satisfying. I’d be interested in trying this again, but know I’d need a supportive business partner; therefore, I feel fluid about my work direction at the moment.

What first drew you to study/practice Buddhism? In what ways does it continue to benefit you?

I’ve always been curious and interested in the spiritual/unseen aspect of life. I went to Roman Catholic schools until I was 14. I loved the convents, churches, nuns, history, and prayer. This aspect of my life seemed to melt away by the time I was 16 and had been launched from the family home into my new world.  Meeting a bunch of buddhists at a London wine bar when I was just 20 was great! I was in a rut, unemployed, and directionless. It was the summer of 1983 and these people were refreshingly brimming with a warm energy and connection that felt sincere. They talked about chanting and focusing on whatever the deep and personal desire was that I held in my heart at that time (unsurprisingly it was to get a job with lots of money). I went back to my flat and started chanting that night. I was astonished when my very specific ‘testing’ of chanting reaped concrete results. I continued chanting and started going to meetings to find out more.

The buddhism I practice is a worldwide movement for peace based on the life-affirming philosophy of Nichiren Buddhism. To illustrate, one of my favourite quotes is from my mentor in buddhist faith, Daisaku Ikeda. He turned 90 years old this year. “Never for an instant forget the effort to renew your life, to build yourself anew. Creativity means to push open the heavy, groaning doorway of life itself. This is not an easy task. Indeed, it may be the most severely challenging struggle there is. For opening the door to your own life is in the end more difficult than opening the door to all the mysteries of the universe.”

Buddhist practice has led me to where I am today, and I have no regrets for my past, present, or future. My mentor, my study and practice of buddhism are the roots of my integrity, and I am proud to stand next to and share my mentor’s spirit.

You’ve written about your difficulties with mutism. Do you have advice for parents who have recognized this behavior in their autistic children and want to help?

In adulthood and childhood, I have my perception and my memories, and these are understandably different than those which other people remember – as we all live out our own unique perceptions of and connection to life. I have a vibrant inner life, I can disappear into it and enjoy being immersed in it. I can’t physically take anyone there with me, but often it feels like others are, in fact, there with me. I want to communicate this to others.

I feel very sensitive on many levels, and it takes effort to be present in the ways that others seem to want me to be present. It often feels very harsh.

As a child I loved being outside in nature. I would happily take myself to a corner of the garden or woods and exist with the life around me. Become the life around me, admire the life around me, be curious and happy in that peaceful exchange or dialogue with nature.

But wait, along comes the adult. It is lunchtime, food is on the table, and we have exactly 45 minutes before we need to take the cat to the vet appointment, plus the adult will have to stop for petrol, they are fussing about what the traffic will be like, and I can’t help them. They say, “hurry up we’re late!!

We definitely aren’t on the same page.

From an online definition I found: “Selective Mutism is a complex childhood anxiety disorder characterized by a child’s inability to speak and communicate effectively in select social settings, such as school. These children are able to speak and communicate in settings where they are comfortable, secure, and relaxed.”

I wonder who wrote that definition? As a child, my priority was never effective communication. As an autistic adult, I find this hilarious. I think it is a clumsy and inaccurate description.

My advice to adults who recognise this behaviour in children is probably a bit bizarre and depends on so many of the circumstances related to expectations on the child.

We all struggle with communication. If an adult is worried or planning something and is seeking support from their child, then try this; when your child is soundly asleep in their beds, simply imagine the child is sitting comfortably in front of you and is giving you their full attention. Kindly and respectfully explain out loud your worries in full to them, share with them what you think you need them to do and fervently ask the child to help you.

If you are in the habit of praying, go through this process as part of your prayers.

Maybe it sounds strange, but what I’m describing is another type of communication and I recommend you give it a go. Not all communication happens when you demand it happens or at the time the clock tells you it needs to happen. Explore other ways of communicating your needs and see if you can understand how your child communicates their needs. It is a respectful process.

Your child was born to be happy. Keep working alongside them exploring different communication and living environments that suits both of you. That is a huge request when your circumstances are, for example, busy, single parent, inner city living.

In childhood, I was happiest with my grandparents in the green of the countryside. They were kind, gentle, peaceful, and I don’t remember any discomfort, my eternal memory is that we loved and cared for each other. The only rules were 1pm lunch and 6pm dinner.

Do you have any advice for other people who are experiencing the same difficulty in the work setting?

Oh dear, my worst example of selective mutism in the work setting relates to being struck mute when it is my time to speak in a presentation. The person I am listening to is doing fantastically, explaining the background to the meeting and who’s come along to the meeting and how excited we are… I am impressed myself! Then I realise I am being introduced in someone else’s words that aren’t how I would introduce myself, and now I am expected to speak about myself. But oh! Of all the things that were said, I can’t find the right thread. It’s kind of spooling out onto the floor. My mind has gone blank! Oh no! Everyone is now looking shocked. I still haven’t spoken. Now I can’t even think of one single thing… if I was asked my name I wouldn’t remember.

I am ashamed, I am melting from the inside out. In each of these situations, it was someone else in the room who rescued the silence. I can only get up and excuse myself to recover in the nearest toilet. The people I left behind have to make a story up about what they think just happened.

I learned if I was expected to speak at a business meeting, I needed to make sure I knew exactly what the objective of the meeting was so I could contribute to that. Anything else is small talk, and I learned it was not a good idea for me to try small talk. My priority needed to be contributing my strengths to the team and winning the business.

At work I could no longer be a child and had to grow in many different ways. The workplace has been a fertile swamp, and I managed to bloom in it. Here’s another recent quote from my faith mentor who has so many keys to communication:

“Buddhism teaches that suffering is the springboard to enlightenment. No one is free from problems and worries—nor is any family or region.

Life is a struggle against problems. What’s important is how we solve the various sufferings and problems that weigh down on us. We need to call forth all our wisdom and make repeated efforts to overcome those problems and reach the victory that lies beyond them. 

Dreaming about what life might be like if only you didn’t have any problems is just an escape from reality into a fantasy realm. It only leads to defeat in life. People who are always making positive efforts, thinking about how to overcome each problem and transform it into a source of value and victory are the winners in life.”

Photo by Jo Farrell

Jo’s Suggested Resources

Söka Gakkai/ Nichiren buddhism: https://www.sgi.org/about-us/buddhist-concepts/attachments-and-liberation.html

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1 Comments

  1. Reply

    Jenna, your blog is currently included on our Actually Autistic Blogs List (anautismobserver.wordpress.com). Please click on the “How do you want your blog listed?” link at the top of that site to customize your blog’s description on the list (or to decline).
    Thank you.
    Judy (An Autism Observer)

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