Locked In

I’ve just come across an article online about a man who is spending 50 hours inside a glass box to raise awareness of autism (via Specialists UK on Twitter). Speaking from my own experience, this is a perfect metaphor for having Aspergers.

I have often felt like I am stuck inside a glass cage, looking out at the world and wanting join in but unable to do so. I want many of the same things as anyone else, but my condition creates an invisible barrier that tries to stop me before I can even leave the front door. I have striven hard to overcome this barrier with some success, particularly during the last two years of my degree at Southampton but, now that I have finished my degree and moved back to Somerset, that glass barrier has reasserted itself and is holding me back again.

It doesn’t help that I’m struggling to find things to do here in Somerset. In Southampton everything is closely connected: I lived only a few minutes from campus, a supermarket and a busy high street was only a few minutes more away and the city centre was a short drive or bus ride away. Now I’m back home in Somerset everything is at least 15 minutes away by car, and that’s assuming that I have somewhere to go (and something to do when I get there).

This barrier effect has cursed my life. There are so many things I had wanted to do that I have not been able to do, in particular at university where there were so many clubs and societies I wanted to join in with, but while I was provided with support in getting my degree I found that there was little room in this support for my extracurricular ambitions. Perhaps I need to acknowledge that I was facing far bigger personal challenges than most other students: I often forget just how hard it was to cope in the first year of university. Nevertheless, I was able to achieve some success in my final two years through the surfing and skydiving clubs, and that’s something I hope to continue, but I also want to broaden out, to try out more things like the things that I wanted to try at university but couldn’t. I’ve started to wonder what I might have tried out if I were still at Southampton, and whether there is any opportunity to try that here.

This transition I’m going through is proving to be hard work: emotionally draining, confusing, scary, and with an uncertain outcome. I’ve spent the past three days cooped up indoors with nowhere to go and it’s messing with my head. Tomorrow I’ve promised myself that I’ll at least try to get out to a café in town and I’m going to make sure that I don’t let myself get cooped up like that again, but I need something more to work towards. I’m reaching out to my friends for help: to keep me grounded, to keep a sense of connection and to suggest ideas for ways forward. I can beat this, but I can’t do it on my own.


On Leaving University

Last week I got confirmation through of my final exam results, telling me that I had passed my degree with a 2:1 grade. This was an enormous achievement, but while you might think that I would be happy with this, I’m actually feeling very emotional.

I think most of my fellow graduates will be feeling emotional at this time, as they say goodbye to housemates, coursemates and friends. Change is always particularly difficult for someone with Asperger Syndrome to deal with, though, and this transition is huge: I’m basically ripping up every aspect of my life and having to reestablish myself somewhere else. For now I’m moving back to Dad’s house until I find a job in the space sector, but I’m not sure if this is the best course of action or if I’m only prolonging things. Fortunately the dropzone my skydiving friends use is less than an hour’s drive away from here so I can still potentially drive down there and visit, but there’s nothing like university that I know of that can bring such a large number of like-minded people together in one place, and now I must leave.

Making matters worse is my feeling that I have been unable to realise my full potential while at Southampton. while in my final two years (of a total of six) my social and recreational life has grown unimaginably, during the first four I felt that the pressure to keep up with my degree was so heavy that my ambitions were almost opposed.

I now feel that although I am now free to take on many of the things I always wanted to do, I am now 34 and I’m trying to do things I should have been doing ten years ago or more, and I fear that it’s already too late to start. I think that the support I have received, while helping me to cope with my degree, has almost forced me to give up on joining in with the range of clubs and societies that university had to offer and now I’m leaving it’s too late for me to start.

I’ve tried to write this post repeatedly over the past few days. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that while the university has supported me through my degree, there has been no similar support for my desire to participate in the recreational side of university life, and the support I’ve had has almost mitigated against it. They tell me that now is my chance to do everything I wanted, but now I’m leaving I can no longer access the clubs and societies at university; that chance has gone for good now.

I came back to Southampton last night to pack up the last of my things and finish cleaning the house before my housemates and I move out on Thursday but, in that time, I’ve already found some of my friends while out and about: last night I found a group of my coursemates while going to get a take away for dinner, while this afternoon I found one of my friends from the surfing club heading to the common and a former housemate herself packing to leave. It struck me that leaving my friends is responsible for a large part of what I’m feeling, and perhaps moving back to Somerset straight away wasn’t such a good idea after all.

What I’m trying to do here is reach out to my friends, contacts, anyone who can help to reassure me through this transition. Moving back to Somerset risks leaving me isolated from my friends and from life in general, and my Dad’s house is a very different environment that cannot provide the same kind of intellectual stimulation that university provides, nor the range of opportunities that exist here.

A Busy Semester

Over the past few weeks I’ve been facing down a bigger workload than I’ve ever had to face before. I seem to be coping with it better than ever before too, though I’m still finding it tough. There are some parts I’m finding easy and some I’m finding really hard. It seemed like the first few weeks of term flew by and exams will soon be upon me.

The hardest part of my degree this semester has been Advanced Partial Differential Equations. This module is renowned as one of the hardest available for an engineer to take and in retrospect I should have chosen another. Nevertheless I seem to be coping with the material and I’m hoping for a half-decent mark in the exam.

The easiest module I have taken this semester is Advanced Computational Methods. This module is taught in a very interactive way, with Professor Fangohr demonstrating the concepts he is teaching via the projector and inviting questions and suggestions from the students. This live demonstration approach is very helpful to learn from as we get to see the code in action. We also have weekly labs to practice with.

Unfortunately the workload has left me with little time to pursue other interests. I made it to the Reinventing Space conference in Oxford a few weeks ago, where I got to do a bit of networking to help my jobhunting, but I’ve come to realise that I can’t afford to take time away from university without putting myself under even more pressure than I’m already under. A prime example of something I have had to miss out on is the Royal Aeronautical Society’s Human Spaceflight conference; I should have been there but taking a day away from university to go just wasn’t possible at the time and that was very frustrating for me. I’m hopeful that the workload will be a bit easier next semester as I’ll have one less subject to study but I expect my group design project will become more dominant, so I expect to still be under the same amount of pressure.

By the end of term last week I was feeling exhausted. A final surge in coursework, along with tests in both Advanced Partial Differential Equations and Advanced Computational Methods, left me feeling completely spent. Fortunately I have planned for this, and have joined the university surfing club for a week in Morocco. More on that soon: I’ve missed blogging and I’m keen to get back to it, and I should have something fun to share… 🙂

9 months left, 300 Societies, 80 Sports Clubs: What Do I Choose?

The University of Southampton has recently launched a video advertising the range of activities their students can get involved in during their degrees. It features several current students, including a couple of my course mates, describing some of the things they have taken part in (skydiving! Woooooo!) and offering advice to new students.

With over 300 societies—including over 80 sports clubs—provided through the Students’ Union, Southampton is a unique opportunity to try out a range of experiences, but the time goes by fast.

I have sought to take as much advantage of this opportunity as I could and I have certainly broadened my horizons, but last month I found myself facing the end of my time at Southampton and feeling frustrated at the things I haven’t done. I have had a far more challenging time at Southampton than other students seem to and I wonder what I might have been able to achieve had things gone more smoothly.

Nevertheless, I still have most of my final year ahead of me and I want to take as much advantage of it as I can while I’m here. I already have the skydiving club (in a social capacity for now) and the surfing club; this year I’ve become secretary of the Gliding club too and we’re starting to get that off the ground again (if you’ll excuse the pun) after a year or so of dormancy. I have a packed schedule in terms of lectures for the foreseeable future along with the Lunar Hopper GDP but I still feel like there’s something else I want to do. Both time and money are going to be at a premium this year though, and there’s more to choose from than I could ever have time for.

I find myself reflecting on what advice I would give my first-year self if I had the chance. Back then I was still recovering from a family bereavement and it was arguably too soon to be taking on something as big as this. The first thing I could have done is seek out help with the transition to living independently, including finding people to live with who I could get on with comfortably at the time rather than just dropping me in with a bunch of random strangers. Finding some time to learn how to cook would also have been good. Finally, getting into counselling sooner would have done me a world of good and helped me to move on sooner, which might have made the following years easier and more successful. Generally, my advice would be to ensure the help I needed was fully put in place as soon as possible, as things would have been so much easier had that happened.

My finances are very tight right now, so whatever I choose is going to have to be cheap. But what do I go for? Have I got enough going already? Should I double down or branch out?

Looking Back on Blogging 101 and Writing 101

Blogging 101 and Writing 101 have now come to a close. Although I haven’t been able to complete all the tasks/prompts I feel like I have learned a few useful things about blogging and the WordPress platform, and I have got my blog going nicely.

I have already attempted Blogging 101 before but there has usually been something crop up that has interrupted me and stopped me from completing it. This time around I feel like I’ve done much better and I’ve completed much more of the course. My main weakness has been in commenting: I haven’t really got into commenting on other people’s blogs at all and that’s something I’m going to have to think about as I continue with my blog. Nevertheless, I feel a sense of completion.

I have not tried Writing 101 before and I struggled to maintain the daily posting routine that it is designed to encourage; more importantly I don’t think I want to be blogging every day as I want to take the time to write something more meaningful (and I don’t always have the time for blogging in amongst all the other stuff I get up to). I also want to write a different kind of material to what Writing 101 seemed to be calling for. I’ve learned a few things here too, but I’m not sure if I’ll return to it as I did with Blogging 101 given how I feel about it. Perhaps I’ll reconsider it once my blog is better established….

Now that I’ve started back at university again I don’t think I’ll have the time for posting frequently but I hope to be able to post once or twice a week. I’ve started to enjoy working on my blog and I want to start writing some more substantial content for it.

Back to University

Last week my lectures began for the final (Masters) year of my degree. This year is going to be packed: I have four 15-credit modules (supposedly equal to 150 hours of study each) this semester, along with a Group Design Project (GDP) worth 45 credits that runs through to the end of the academic year. Next semester I have a further three 15-credit modules, so I’m going to be busy. The full list is:

  • Semester 1:
    • Advanced Computational Methods 1
    • Advanced Partial Differential Equations
    • Spacecraft Engineering Design
    • Spacecraft Structural Design
  • Semester 2:
    • Spacecraft Propulsion
    • Spacecraft Orbit Mechanics and Control
    • Hypersonic and High Temperature Gas Dynamics
  • Whole year: Lunar Hopper GDP

That’s some heavy stuff. It’s a good job I like these kinds of things….

This year is sometimes known as a ‘Masters’ year because it is the final year of an integrated masters programme; whereas someone might do a three-year BEng programme then a separate MSc, my degree programme takes me straight through to an MEng. The equivalent standing of an MEng to an MSc is supposedly debatable, but in theory the MEng programme combines the two into one four-year course.

Fortunately the timetable itself isn’t particularly heavy. This semester I have 12 lectures a week (with a handful of additional one-off lectures through the semester) along with a few hours of tutorials, a one-hour computing lab each week and weekly GDP meetings which are still settling down. This reduces to nine weekly hours of lectures and three 3-hour labs in the second semester. All told, this is going to be a busy year.

Writing 101: Make a Prompt Personal/The Stat Connection

I am writing this post in response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “The Stat Connection”:

Go to your Stats page and check your top 3-5 posts. Why do you think they’ve been successful? Find the connection between them, and write about it.

I don’t write for the sake of it, I write—when I want to write—to convey something of some importance. I like to take my time over what I write, to develop a point rather than rush out a half-done job. The Blogging 101 and Writing 101 courses, however, have been driving me to write daily and on things that don’t really inspire me the way I want to be inspired about my work.

One of my inspirations for blogging is Steve Pavlina. Steve writes a blog on personal development and growth that, at last count, attracted over a million views a month and earned him over $10,000 a month (he has since stopped counting). He achieved this by focussing on writing posts that delivered some kind of lasting value to his readers, something that would be of use to them years after they were written, and many of them still do. I don’t expect to come close to his level of success, of course, but taking his lead I want to write something that has more meaning and value than I could come up with in just a few hours. (A note of caution: Steve is not shy and some of his work discusses ideas that some might be uncomfortable with, even offended by. He likes to provoke people into thinking for themselves about things and this ruffles feathers sometimes.)

A case in point is today’s Blogging 101 task “Make a Prompt Personal”:

Today’s assignment: publish a post based on your own, personalized take on a blogging prompt.

I clicked through to the daily prompt and started thinking but I couldn’t come up with anything I wanted to write for my blog, so I clicked for another prompt. I had the same problem with that one and clicked through again and again. It wasn’t until I reached the seventeenth prompt that I actually found the prompt that clicked, something that I could write something for my blog with.

When I take a look at my stats I can see something striking. For the month of September, I have accumulated so far 198 views from 110 visitors, having posted 10 posts so far. The top post this month was my One Word Inspiration post; I think the views on this post and the next two were driven by the Blogging 101 and Writing 101 courses. My best month so far, however, is May with 233 views from 154 visitors. The only post I published that month was Levelling Up, and I think that illustrates what I was getting at above.

Levelling Up was my most powerful and most heartfelt post so far. I wrote it with a specific purpose of my own rather than for some course or assignment, and posted links to it in the Facebook groups of the skydiving and surfing clubs at university, which seems to have driven a lot of the views, but I’ve been sharing my posts on Facebook and Twitter since then and not generating the same amount of interest. It’s much more like the kind of thing I want to share than anything the prompts or assignments over the past week have enabled me to do.

I still want to finish Blogging 101 and Writing 101, but I’m going to try to push them more towards what I want to write in future posts. I’m starting to draft some posts and get some ideas of my own together so hopefully I should be able to share something much more substantial in the next few weeks.