Interview in full, originally published in two parts on Oct 9th & 16th 2018
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.”
Jo’s Suggested Resources
Söka Gakkai/ Nichiren buddhism: https://www.sgi.org/about-us/buddhist-concepts/attachments-and-liberation.html
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 ageing 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): https://www.aane.org/undue-influence-webinar/