“Asperger’s on the Inside is an acutely honest and often highly entertaining memoir by Michelle Vines about life with Asperger’s Syndrome. The book follows Michelle in exploring her past and takes the reader with her on her journey to receiving and accepting her diagnosis.” ~ Book description on Amazon.
Samantha Craft interviews author Michelle Vines about her memoir Aspergers on the Inside, an insightful firsthand account that explores with heartfelt clarity various aspects of life as an autistic.
Samantha: Michelle, thank you for your time today here and thank you for dedicating years to writing your book Aspergers on the Inside. I appreciated the copy you sent me. I found your story to be heartfelt, genuine, and refreshing. You have an airiness and lightness to your writing that makes for an easy flow of your insights and thoughts. Also, I appreciate how you focus on some of the challenges with working relationships with colleagues in the workplace. Overall, I found your book to be a kind-hearted reflection that echoes the commonalities those of us on the autism spectrum face in our daily life. Thank you for providing a voice of the autistic and for your hard work to make your words available for others.
Michelle: Thank you Sam. That is a wonderful introduction to the book. I’m not quite sure what else to say in response!
Sam: You are welcome, my pleasure. You wrote some specific insights in your story, including having “a hard time determining where my personality ends and my Asperger’s begins.” I think many of us on the autism spectrum can completely relate to this comment. Would you elaborate on this insight?
Michelle: Yes. I think a lot of us have a variety of different Aspie traits, and the ones that we have are different for each of us. When people post questions on Aspie forums saying, “Does anybody have this?” it is usually that a percentage do and a percentage don’t. I think many are traits that anybody could have, but some may be more prevalent in the autism community than in the population at large. So, for every way in which I am different it can be hard to determine if it is an Aspie trait, or just a trait that is me. In the book, I decided that there was no point in really trying to divide my behaviors into black and white categories or Aspie and Non-Aspie. That is too hard. So instead I decided just to show the world me, and discuss some of the things that might be more common in Aspies. I think it makes me more human and relatable that way.
Sam: That makes a lot of sense, especially about the black and white concept of categories and division. You definitely created a very relatable book. I realized I jumped right into one of the complex issues you address in your memoir, without first offering out questions about the book process itself. Typical Aspie move on my part. Backtracking a bit, when did you first decide to write your book and why?
Michelle: (laughter) Well, that will be complicated to answer. I think I first decided I was going to make a serious attempt at writing back in 2011, when I sat down and penned chapter 1 (or the first draft of it) “look at me, trying to write!” I had made some rough attempts at writing before that, but it was just so hard to get my thoughts in a clear order. Then one day I was having a meeting with an Aspie friend of mine, David N, who told me he loves the way I express myself, and said something like “it’s such a gift that you said that.” I can’t even remember what I said now (something about one particular element of Aspie behavior), but his words stuck in my head. After the meeting I went home, and felt inspired to try again. And that was when that chapter came out, and I started to form a vision in my head of what I wanted to do with the book…
Oh that was the when … I guess I still need to answer the why!
The idea of writing this book has been with me for such a long time, mostly because there are so many things that go on in my head that I have wanted other people to understand. As an Aspie, I have for a long time had troubles with being misunderstood by others, and trouble with being misinterpreted socially. And sometimes that can be so frustrating. I had a feeling that if I could just—somehow, one day—write it all down in a way that would be pleasant for people to read, then, maybe finally, I could really be understood. And I did this not just for me, but on behalf of all the Aspies out there who want to be understood. I as I’m sure so many other Aspies have had experiences similar to mine, so I wanted to write a book that would reach regular people, and really help them to understand all of us, and what we go through.
Sam: That’s wonderful how David inspired you. I love how people work in our lives for a higher good and cause. It sounds as if you had a story in you needing to get out, and a much-needed story to tell. I can relate to that, and also that big question that many of us experience with a later age diagnosis. As you know, I have a memoir coming out about Aspergers. After reading your book I felt an immediate connection, that sense of Aspie sisterhood. I could see myself in many of your tales and review of historical events. At the same time, I appreciate how our two books are similar but in many ways very different, with unique styles, artistic expression voices and experiences. The two memoirs together reflect how each of us on the spectrum is uniquely our own individual self, and reinforce that no two autistics and/or Aspies are the same. We each have our own story and voice, just like everyone on this earth. In sharing your voice and heart with a public audience, with anyone truly, who might choose to read your life in print, did you have any misgivings, fears, or doubts?
Michelle: Thank you. Yes, exactly. I had a story that I wanted so badly to get out, to help others and myself finally be heard. I have very much enjoyed talking to you so far too, and I agree that we have that Aspie connection and have similar goals. I completely agree with your assessment that we have very different styles, and are very different Aspies. But that is a good thing, because we compliment each other. Regarding sharing my story. Yes, it was a very brave and potentially scary thing for me to do. There were times when I thought to myself “should I include that? It’s a bit private,” but I decided that if I am going to write this book and try to get my feelings out into the world, then I need to really go for it. I need to tell everything and let it be as personal as possible to maximize how much others will feel my story along with me and really understand. It’s possible I may get some awkward comments from it, or online trolling. But you know, I am proud of myself and don’t have too much to hide or be sensitive about any more. So be it. I decided to take that risk!
Sam: You are welcome, and again thank you for the opportunity to read your book and also for this conversation. (And for taking that risk!) Your answer leads me into my next question. Autistics are often honest, frank, and courageous in that they are authentic and share from their mind and sometimes heart. We sometimes forget that not everyone thinks the same as us or interprets life through the same lens. I tend to be less private, and in your tellings, you are exposing your true self, fears, and hurts. I am proud of you, too, as I am for all of us who shine authentically, autistic or not. Like others, my truthful and tell-all nature can attract predators or individuals that don’t have my best interest in mind. You write briefly about how the issue of distinguishing between general affection and, I guess we could say, “false affection” is a tough one for some of us, particularly in our teen years and young adulthood. Do you have any tools you implement to distinguish safe from unsafe relationships? Or to protect yourself?
Michelle: You are welcome.
Oh that is a tough one. You sure know how to ask questions!! I wish I had a method of telling real affection from false affection. We Aspies could use some sort of lie detector that we can wave in people’s faces just to get true and false readouts. Because that wouldn’t be socially awkward, right?
But more seriously, I don’t have any test. I decided at some point to just trust in myself, and trust that if I get rejected sometimes, I can handle it. It would be easy to shut myself off from people and risks, but then I would miss out on so much in life. Letting others truly in is how you find the most satisfying relationships. Of course, when I believe someone else is harmful, I walk away from them. But as for new people, it is a risk I just have to take and know that I am strong enough to cope with whatever life throws at me.
As for being frank, aren’t we all! I find that sometimes I can be a bit too much for some people’s tastes! It’s an Aspie thing—as you well know But for the most part, I find that it is what people like about me. Aspie quirkiness can be a charm just as much as a failure if you do it with confidence.
(I wanted to put in a disclaimer there to young Aspies, that I do tread with caution. ie. I would never give out personal information to people I don’t know well, lend money, or go places alone with unknown people… etc.)
Sam: I love your (full) response. Yes, I am a natural “interviewer” in everyday life. You are so correct in that shutting ourselves out we lose potential for connection and life experience. At the same time, we both understand the hurts others experience and how easy it is to start distrusting others. I hope as a community coming together, like you and me now, that we can rebuild trust and acceptance and offer out safe harbor for those that do carry those battle wounds of life. Aspie quirkiness for sure! I tend to gravitate toward that myself. And I appreciate that about you.
Sometimes this rejection we feel, or harmful deeds from others, can trigger us or in other words lead to mixed emotions and harmful self-talk. You touch base in Aspergers on the Inside . . . I sense is a struggle for many autistics. You make mention of the “awful downward spiral” into sadness and working through your emotions . . . This has been one of my biggest struggles, and something that can sometimes lead to behaviors and thoughts that are not beneficial. Through life and through the process of writing, have you found strategies to help you with the downward spiral and working through your emotions?
Michelle: Oh, yeah. That has been a tough journey. At the start of the book I mention a ‘downwards spiral’ I felt stuck in. The spiral was that I didn’t feel confident enough to show people the true me, and I found myself acting the accepted part, even subconsciously. But then I would feel down that people didn’t love me for who I really am, and what I am inside. I had some very hard times with that for many years, and felt a lot of depression and dislike towards myself.
I think re-reading that now it almost feels foreign to me, because without even realizing it I have sort of come out of that mentality. When I decided to be my true self and focus on being me more, I have stopped acting any part as much. And now I feel more authentic and less un-loved as a result. That must have happened over time. Who knew! This is a very personal thing to admit here—but being on mild antidepressants also helped a lot. It turns out my serotonin levels are low, and I have always needed them. Just to make my happiness baseline okay. On days when you are depressed, it is hard to be happy about anything let alone yourself, and pulling out of a spiral like that becomes impossible. I am a lot happier now.
Sam: I am glad that you have found a method that works for you. Generalized anxiety and mood disorders are very common for autistics—hormonal fluctuations in particular for females. I am a strong supporter in each person finding a path that works for them and not judging or trying to push the “right” way on anyone. I am glad you have found something that works for you! Thank you for sharing that aspect about your life. I am also pleased to hear you have found some solutions to that spiral.
I have found through writing publicly that I have had the ability to process what was once confusion and bring it into a new light of clarity. Emotions, through much processing and sharing, are becoming more and more approachable and understandable to me. Like you, I am also much happier.
In your book, I was moved by your schooling experiences. Many of us, autistic or not, can relate to being bullied, isolated, or ostracized in school, and may of us still carry scars. Thank you for your honesty and insights into your trials. As an adult now, and as a mother, how have you brought some closure and, if you will, “healing” to your school experiences?
Michelle: I think depression and anxiety are extremely common side effects to being on the spectrum, and definitely hard things to overcome. I still remember how awful those down feelings can be and feel sad for anybody who still is in that situation. I am so glad to hear you are feeling positive, and have a great outlet for dealing with your emotions. I think writing did help a lot for me, as it did for you.
My schooling experiences were very hurtful for me at the time, but I think I did process them and deal with them over a 5-6 year period after then. I guess 5-6 years because I dealt with them by talking to people about it a lot, and that was how long it took for me to be able to tell those stories without it bringing back pain, anger or negative emotions. I guess when you find ways to work through bad experiences—such as talking for me—time does heal all wounds. I carried emotional scars from the workplace for a long time too and had a lot of fear about ever having to work again for many years after.
Now that my book is written, and out, it has actually given me a lot of closure on those experiences, and I can think about them without the hurt now. I guess if talking to each individual helped me, then telling the whole world must have helped a lot.
As a mother I find myself very protective of my own kids, and make extra sure that my Aspie son is not in a position where he is likely to be bullied. But at the same time, I think a small dose of adverse experience can help us grow empathy and mature as a person, and it has certainly helped me become the person I am today. The key word there I think is *small*! So as a mother I will keep a close eye on my kids and what they go through in life, and will make sure I am always there to talk them through problems, and explain to them how bullies work, and how it is not really about them. But, if I see any situations that are ongoing or more of a serious problem, I will want to do something about it. Of course that is probably easier said than done.
(Afterthought: In regards to the kids, I am glad at least the world nowadays has changed, and Aspies and their challenges are much better recognized and understood in the school systems. I think the experience of the next generation is going to be MUCH better than the experiences of our generation.)
Sam: I almost feel guilty as I relate to you so much. Not able to play the devil’s advocate much, here. I agree with the protection of our children. It’s a fine line between over protecting and protecting in this day and age, especially when we are aware of our own past hurts.
Closure is fantastic and a huge blessing in my book. I don’t mean that literally. I am a strong supporter to what you are saying about sharing and talking things through. Thank you for sharing that with us. Your honesty and deep insights are refreshing. You clearly have a strong understanding about yourself.You mention workplace “emotional scars.” That is a hot and important topic. Statistically, up to 85% of autistics are unemployed and/or in jobs earning below their potential based on experience and education (levels). People on the spectrum with PHds are sometimes taking jobs at minimum wage earnings and with no health insurance or are unable to find work or remain at work due to much needed accommodations and support. In your memoir, you present challenges in your places of past employment. Something I am certain that readers will find familiar. In looking back now, what do you think management could have implemented to make your work experience more beneficial? If you were to return to a full-time place of employment, what strategies would help you? And how can we get the word out there that support measures and awareness into the autistic work challenges are needed?
Michelle: Oh, yes. I think things could have been so much different for me if I had only understood that I had Asperger’s and had any idea of why I was struggling so much in the workplace. Given my own experience, I am not surprised at all to hear that 85% unemployed/underemployed statistic. I myself had bachelor’s degrees, and could not find employment in which I felt okay. But now that I know, I can imagine how much better it would have been if I had been able to talk to my employer about my issues.
I think some time working from home, instead of being in an over stimulating office environment might have helped. Or having an office of my own with a sign on the door that I could flip to say “GO AWAY” (or some polite—more typically worded—version of that) would have allowed me periods where I just needed that mental break from other people. Or alternatively, I could have worked on a pay by the workload, where I came in when I needed to, to get the job done, and left when I didn’t need to be there. There are sooooo many alternative options that could be used if employers just allowed us to be creative.
Right now, I have recently taken on a role for my publishing company as production manager – scheduling, coordinating, and projecting finances for the company, and I can do most of it from home. I love that job and it works so well for me, because I choose my hours. Coming from somebody who was afraid I could never work again, this is amazing progress.
Sam: You bring up a good point. Being able to identify with having Aspergers and thusly challenges is very helpful. I appreciate the alternative suggestions you mention. Work from home or remote work seems to be an ideal situation for many of us neurodiverse folks. I myself work from home, and it is a good fit for me. (And wonderful about your publishing company!)
Michelle: I would love to find a way to get the word out there about the changes that are needed. I am not sure about how to achieve that myself, but I think a great start is educating people, and publishing material to help the general public understand what Autism and Asperger’s are, and what sorts of things help us.
I hope that as the culture starts to understand us better, the workplace might follow. I have already heard that there are autism-friendly workplaces out there, and even some that seek to recruit people on the spectrum specifically. That is fantastic.
Sam: Yes, I will toot my own horn, here. Thanks for the lead in. (laughing) I work for ultratesing.us and they employ people with autism. We are autism friendly! I am proud to be a part of that organization and hope more and more companies will follow suit. Agreed, education is an essential key, and sharing materials, knowledge, and insights. Autistic voices matter. Books like yours will help to bring further awareness and much-needed connection.
Michelle: And this is the first time I have updated the public on my work situation, so you were the first to hear it.
Sam: Super! Yay, me! Feeling twelve, again. I have a couple more questions for you. Thank you for your time and wonderful insights. I am enjoying your outlook, much as I enjoyed your book. What do you think is the most common misconception of autistics? And lastly, how is your life different for you now, knowing that you are on the autism spectrum in comparison to your earlier life?
Michelle: Hmm common misconceptions is a hard one… I think one of the biggest things people get wrong about Autistics is the idea that we have no emotions! Obviously we do, and in fact I have seen recent studies floating around Facebook suggesting that if anything we tend to be over emotional and have trouble handling those emotions. The problem is often that we just don’t know how to express them, or cope with and express our emotions differently to other people.
I also think a big misconception is that if a (“high functioning”) Aspie seems normal or behaves typically, then we are not an Aspie any more or our condition is mild. But sometimes it is just an indicator of how much work that person puts in to fit in, and we can have all sorts of difficulties and exhaustion under the surface that we still need help with.
There are so many others I would like to add, but I appreciate that we are getting short on time, so I will move to your last question…
And lastly, I think my life has become soooo soooo much better since I came to learn about my autism and sought diagnosis. Firstly on an internal level, knowing why I struggled with things just gave me a reason not to beat myself up so much or push myself so hard. Before I knew what Asperger’s was, I had always had struggles but felt that if other people coped with things then I had to too, no matter how painful they were for me. This diagnosis has finally given me a reason to say—no. Others may be able to cope with that, but I understand myself, and I cannot take on that much. I am able to look after me now, and as a result I have so much more energy, and so much more left to give.
And . . . it has allowed me to finally find my true self. Although it took a long time, the more I have let out my real Aspie personality, and learnt to be happy with that version of me, the more I have grown as a person. Telling other people that I have Asperger’s and “coming out” was a huge step towards me being free to really be me in the public eye, and be proud and happy with myself as a person. And I have grown so much since then, because of that decision!
Sam: That is a lovely response that so many of us on the autism spectrum and many neurodiverse people in general can relate to. I find myself nodding through your words. You have a wonderful way of expressing yourself, even without given much time to prepare! I have thoroughly enjoyed this conversation. I’d love to do this again, soon. Thank you very much for your time and words, both in your book, Aspergers on the Inside, and in this discussion. Your words are a wonderful gift of connection and support and a resourceful tool in peering inside the mind of an autistic adult. I wish you much success with your autism outreach and future works, and look forward to hearing more about your journey in future connections.
Michelle: I see we are out of time, but thank you Sam for giving me the opportunity to do this interview with you. I love your work, and the fact that you, too, are out there spreading the Aspie word and trying to make the world a better place for all of us. I wish you all the best, and much success with your own book, “Everyday Aspergers.”
“Celebrating neurodiversity through the arts, literature, and service.” ~ myspectrumsuite.com