Autism Interview #79 Part 2: Jo Farrell on Social Anxiety

Photo by Jo Farrell

This post is a continuation of last week’s interview with Jo Farrell. Jo is a British caucasian and UK-based mother (to an adult son), blogger, marketeer, amateur photographer, and practitioner of Nichiren Buddhism. Last week she shared some of her work experience, how mutism has affected her, and the benefits of practicing Buddhism. This week she revealed some of the nuances of her social anxiety and offered advice for parents of autistic children in similar situations.

You mentioned in a recent blog post about social anxiety: “Should someone become critical, I learned some time ago that questioning their criticism – because I sincerely want to understand – usually resolves it.” Can you explain this a bit more or offer an example of when this has happened?

Yes, this is a good question. Working in marketing, I’ve had the chance to be around some fantastic communicators. One of the best things I learned was to agree with people when they’re critical, to understand the basis of how they perceive the fault or mistake. Let them tell you how angry they are. Take a deep breath, nod in agreement and with genuine sincerity say or communicate, ‘I completely agree’.

What do you think happens next? Usually nothing, because the person who is upset wasn’t expecting that, they are in fact quite anxious about complaining and potentially experiencing conflict.

The person might say, for example, ‘This is not what I asked for, this is not what I expected, I am not paying for this’ and be ready to argue their position. If they are inexperienced at expressing their concerns, it will be more personal and directed at you, for example, “YOU haven’t done what YOU promised YOU were going to do.’ Their faces may be red and most likely they will stare at you in a worrying manner. Here’s a simple example of a response.

Me –  I completely agree with you.

Them – looking at me, eyebrows up.

Me – I’m really sorry this has happened, I would feel exactly the same way. This is not how we (the business) should be representing ourselves… I’m so sorry you’ve had to experience this, and it has taken so much of your time. Please can we just walk through the information we have here and make sure it is reworked and presented in exactly the right way? It will give me the chance to find out what has gone wrong and make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Thank you, I really appreciate your time.

Maybe by going through items or the report line by line, I’ll find that the expectation is that the costs don’t make sense or something which is of great importance to the client has been left off or misunderstood. That means that together, we can work through where each of the costs come from to reach the price. Find out if there is something that can be cut back or a process that can be reworked. The person will feel listened to, respected, and will probably value that they are part of the solution. There’s a chance to improve communication, do a better job, and win trust.

Whenever I am able, I try to remember there’s nothing wrong with criticism. It means someone wants to open up, and its an opportunity for improvement and development.

If you don’t let people criticise, the level of their potential hurt and resentment could ruin your business or reputation, and being in this situation can take immense courage.

In a job interview once, I was asked, ‘how do you work with a difficult client?’ I answered ‘Oh, a difficult client just needs more time and support than others’.

I got the job and the difficult client, we got on very well.

It is paradoxical that I have made a successful living in communication yet it is a centre of my personal suffering.

If you are in a setting with more than one other person, what type of environment/behaviors help you feel most comfortable, if at all? If you are always uncomfortable with more than one other person, describe what exactly causes the most anxiety.

This is quite a complex question! Lets imagine this is a social setting.

In a structured meeting, it is different because I would ensure I know the purpose and expected outcome of the meeting and would also ensure I contributed and supported that.

In a social situation, it’s like I revert to another state. Unless I am asked a question, I rarely join in. I don’t ‘enjoy’ talking about something I’m not interested in. I don’t enjoy talking generally unless it is personally stimulating or I am learning or sharing something useful.  I’m happy to sit in company. I like listening, but will generally find something to admire and focus on or drift off very lightly into my own inner world.

I would be comfortable in that kind of situation, as long as I am accepted as being quiet or shy. You can see why I’m not top of anyone’s list to ask to a party. I call it ‘my kind of boring’ because that is how I like to be.

If I was going to lunch with a friend, I would be most relaxed knowing there’s something we’re going to talk about. For example, my friend might need someone to talk to because they need to discuss and find help with a problem. My ideal place would be environmentally soft and rounded, no strong colours, sharp corners, sharp noises, strong lights or smells. I think those ingredients are the cornerstone of fast food eateries where there is an average visit time of 15 minutes.

What causes me anxiety? Finding myself in a situation where I feel I must act or mask to get through a situation where I recognise there are expectations from someone who is potentially trying to control or use me or my thoughts for their own ends.

I have friends who identify as neurodiverse, and I suspect I am most animated and relaxed with them. It’s like we’re on the same wavelength, there’s something about our thinking that seems to match, and we seem to talk at the same speed.

I feel most uncomfortable when people sit around talking about other people as if running them down is a form of entertainment and I am forced to listen to destructive scheming.

What mistakes do you see neurotypical autism advocates make?

I’m not sure what a neurotypical advocates. If someone is an advocate, it usually means they are supporting or recommending after experiencing something. As I have always lived independently, my needs are mostly for compassionate understanding of how I think differently.

I think anyone can be a positive supporter of neurodiversity.

I think the cluster of behaviours currently called ‘autistic’ are just a different way of thinking and communicating and experiencing the world.

Am I disabled? I think I have experienced very intense fear, self doubt and anxiety. I have hidden and suppressed parts of my core identity to the point of seeking professional help because I have found I’m in a minority and not easily understood. But what about the joyful things that make me shine from the inside that other people may not experience? I need advocates for my happiness!

What was the most important contributor to your development of a positive autistic identity?

I have always struggled with social communication and am verbally inhibited, so people may judge me as shy or at worst awkward, withdrawn, and uncommunicative. Personally, I am happy with being described as socially inept.

I encountered information about women and autism four years ago, and it is only since the beginning of 2018 that I have been seeking professional support which has been triggered by severe anxiety and depression.

Being highly sensitive is both positive and negative to experience. It’s not just the physical senses, it’s the confusion and not knowing how to communicate the experience of such a rich inner life – that spiritual side.

Apparently alexithymia is an inability to express and describe my feelings. My feelings are so huge and beautiful and complex the words haven’t been invented. Maybe I can paint them for you? We should ask an autistic poet to describe them.

Conversely, the shock and trauma I experience from behaviours I may view as hostility or aggression renders me deeply confused and silenced. I cannot express how I feel. The small, sensitive me is shrinking and hiding on the inside, yet forced to mask this or be judged an over-emotional, over-sensitive, over-reactive adult, who cannot be trusted with the most simple tasks and requests.

Identification as ‘autistic’ means I now have the confidence that what I am experiencing can be described and shared with others and can contribute to the happiness of so many people. Viewing the psychology and dynamics of autism in my life and behaviour is a positive step forward. I have a strong desire to communicate and share my experience with others.

I have a lot of difficulty understanding the behaviour others may be directing towards me. This is because I cannot ‘see myself’ as other see me, I can only see their chosen behaviour or their reactions from my perspective. I would like to work with a counsellor who could help and guide me with this. Autistic books describe this as being ‘mind blind.’ I need a trustworthy, seeing person or friend to compassionately guide me.

I am more than aware that these behaviours can be identified by others. I am therefore potentially vulnerable to predatory behaviour or abusive relationships in ways that others are not.

I feel like I present two very different people; the physically aging women who has shown she is capable, strategic, very direct, blunt, highly organised and possibly confident sounding; and the frightened, bewildered child still asking ‘what am I supposed to do in this situation?, why are they behaving like that?’.  The dynamics of these strong and weak abilities and behaviours identified as ‘autism’ have gradually led me to slip into severe social isolation, severe immersion into personally stimulating interests, as well as the exhaustive breakdown of relationships with nearly all the people around me.

Because of my inner world, I still have choices. Starting right here, I have created the time to start a new springtime, new growth, a renewal of my inner life, and an opportunity to push open that groaning doorway of life. My mentor is 90 years old! He continues to teach me to dig down where I am standing and locate the fresh source of my most creative spirit. I want to find a way to communicate this to others, to help others open doors to happiness.

Jo’s Suggested Resources

Undue Influence webinar (on the basics of undue influence, and why individuals on the autism spectrum are uniquely susceptible to it):

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