As part of I AM’s mission to celebrate autism with the wider world, we’re happy to present the latest in a series of our ’10 questions with…’ series, this time featuring writer and Popcorn Quiz World Number One Michael Andrews.
1. You got a diagnosis for autism in 2013 when you were 47, how did this change your life?
I had a mix of emotions. I was relieved that finally, I found this label that defined me. Having done some research on the internet prior to my diagnosis I was coming around to the fact that I could have autism. But then I started thinking, “What if it is decided that I do not have autism? What next?” I always knew I was different by the way some people treated me and the fact that I never mixed like other kids when I was growing up. What else could it be? My diagnosis came at a very difficult time in my life. I was having trouble in employment. I just literally crashed and burned which is what prompted me to have a diagnosis. I was at perhaps the lowest point in my life. I had what was described as a mental breakdown. However, what I read on the internet ticked the box for autism burnout. I was in a very desperate state. From my experience, it’s not the way to find out you have autism. Early diagnosis is important. If I had known earlier I could have avoided this if I had learned the signs. I was not looking for signs. That train was hurtling at top speed right over the cliff edge. I count myself lucky to have survived.
My other emotion was frustration. I thought I was going to get help post-diagnosis. Help to stay in my job. I was on my own. I was being treated for clinical depression and my employer The NHS could not wait to get rid of me quick enough. I was out the door which just made my anxiety worse worrying about my future. I was made redundant in 2015 and I have not been in paid work since. I questioned the point of a diagnosis if there is no post support to get my life back up and running again. All I want is a paid job. A routine. A feeling of being part of a wider family. A work-family. That does a whole lot more for my mental wellbeing than popping pills for depression.
I came off medication for depression many years ago. I have found interests to occupy my time and written a book which helped me enormously. I have three more books ready to go to print should my first book do well. I am still looking for a paid job more for my mental well-being. I like to have that routine of getting up and going to work and being around people even though I do not talk to them very much. I live in hope that one day my fortunes may change. However, post-diagnostic support is vitally important if we are to have a meaningful life.
2. You suffered bullying at school which you said impacted on your confidence and self-esteem, how did you deal with this and how did you overcome it?
I bottled it up. It was the wrong approach. In those days, I was told to grow a thick skin, a shield to deflect all the hurt, both physical and mental. It did not deflect the hurt and the misery, I had a lonely existence. I became withdrawn and my heart and soul were destroyed to the point I wanted to end my life. I overcame it when I put my experiences and energy into writing a book. Words from my heart that was ready to forgive.
3. Tell us about the Making of a Sound Engineer and why you wrote it? Where does the title come from? And why did you choose the particular cover image?
From a very early age, I was fascinated by sound. I never realised that, at the time, I found the sound to be very therapeutic, and it helped to soothe my anxieties. I never even knew what anxiety was at the time. Some sounds make me anxious, and I try to avoid those as much as possible. My interest was those sounds that made me feel contented. Music was my main interest, and I always wanted to experiment with sound to find that combination of notes that reach deep within the soul. I found listening to the words of songs hard and quite often misinterpreted them, much to the laughter of others when I recite them. The internet was a real positive game-changer for me, as it meant that I could now read the lyrics and read the correct words, which, combined with the sounds, made the experience even more enriching. I could not live without it. It is my oxygen for life. So from a very early age, when asked at a careers talk what interests me most, my answer was an unequivocal ‘sound’. My mind was set, I knew I wanted to be a Sound Engineer. However, like all reputable careers advisors, I was advised against doing what I wanted to do most. That and becoming a writer, my other passion. I was pointed in the direction of other engineering disciplines, which did not do for my soul what sound did.
Like with song lyrics, which I occasionally misinterpret and get wrong, people on the autism spectrum can see things differently from others. A bit like an optical illusion of how the brain can interpret an image. The title of my book, ‘The Makings of a Sound Engineer’, can be interpreted in different ways. Is it a ‘Sound Engineer’ or a ‘Sound Engineer’? The same words, but different meanings. It depends on how one interprets those words when one read them.
The cover design combines both my fascination with music and trains. The quaver, a music symbol, which, if you look closely spirals into the tunnel. It’s not just the physical aspect of the train that I like but the sound they make running over the tracks. And then the tunnel. That train coming out of the tunnel was like my experience when I got my autism diagnosis. The light at the end of the tunnel has lived for so long in darkness.
Writing the book was the most difficult thing I had done. At the same time, it was therapeutic as I was able to describe my experiences in words instead of bottling them all up in my mind. Also, there were high profile instances of bullying on the news resulting in victims taking their own lives which saddened me very much but also made me very angry that it still goes on. There is no excuse for people to behave in such an abominable way. I want victims to feel empowered to speak out if they are victims. It’s not a weakness to ask for help. I like to feel I have learnt a lot by writing about my experience.
4. Are you still ranked No.1 in the World on Popcorn Quiz on the Alexa? Are movies and films a particular passion? And what are your top 5 films of all time?
I am still ranked number one in the world. I have not played for two months now. I have decided to give somebody else a chance of being number one. I reached my bucket list of one million points which took me three years of playing. The one-ranked number two has 160,000 to go before regaining the number one spot. If I continued playing, the other players were never going to catch me. I guess I have a few more months at being number one.
Movies were not my real passion before I started playing Popcorn Quiz. Growing up, I had a very narrow film choice. I have always liked James Bond. I also liked Crocodile Dundee and Star Trek. I never got into Star Wars, although I watched them because I liked the actor Alec Guinness. He was one of my late mothers’ favourite actors. Since playing Popcorn Quiz I have watched a broader range of films and got to know more actors. I liked watching The Accountant with Ben Affleck, who plays the main character who is autistic. It was violent but some moments made my eyes well up, especially when the actors hit it on the nail and finally got it when it comes to understanding autism. Ben Affleck and Anna Kendrick were brilliant. I have started to watch films that I would not usually try and it has made my life a lot more interesting.
However, I still like the oldies. The ones I watched repeatedly growing up. There are so many. Many were my late mothers’ favourites like Gone with the Wind, Top Hat and Little Women. I am glad I did watch them because it has given me an edge playing Popcorn Quiz.
5. You said you are currently looking for a new work challenge, what skills do you think you have that make you the perfect candidate?
My ability to think differently. I can look at the world in the minutest of detail see data patterns that others may overlook. I can also do the most monotonous and repetitive of tasks without complaint. I like routine. That’s the key. I like to focus on the job in front of me and just get on with it. It’s a quality that many employers overlook when they see a person labelled with autism. We can be highly productive.
6. What has your experience of job hunting been like so far?
Very difficult, as I was caring for my mother full-time for two years until she passed away in 2017. I’ve been trying to get back into the workplace ever since but with no success. Do I put autism on my CV, or do I leave it out? If I leave it out, I am missing out on an important quality that makes me stand out from all the rest. Autism is my strength. All my past computer projects would never have been possible without those abilities that autism has given me. If I put autism on my CV, will an employer that reads it understand my autism?
7. You worked for the NHS for almost 12 years, can you tell us about your biggest achievements and challenges?
This is a difficult question to answer. I wrote about my experiences in my book ‘The Makings of a Sound Engineer’, in which I highlighted that people with autism are vulnerable in the workplace and like all vulnerable people can become the target of bullies who see their life as worthless and can behave disrespectfully towards them. I blew the whistle 8 years ago, but the ramifications from that time still haunt me today, and I question whether I will ever get over an experience like that. It has been suggested that I have all the symptoms of PTSD, but I have never been officially diagnosed with it. I did, until that point, enjoy my job – doing what I do best.
8. What do you think is the biggest misconception about autism?
Before I was officially diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum, I was often on the receiving end of offensive remarks, such as retard. This is perhaps some peoples’ perception of me, because of the way I look. Since my diagnosis, my once meek and mild nature has now changed, I now exude my autistic traits, which makes me vulnerable to those minorities who prey on my shyness, knowing I am not going to answer them back.
A senior consultant in the NHS referred to me as a knobhead, and he didn’t expect me to defend myself, which I did and logged a complaint. However, I wrongly thought that the NHS management would protect my interests. Instead, I was pressured to withdraw my complaint and threatened with “consequences”, if I didn’t. I will always see it as an official stance from the NHS that I am a knobhead. A culture of abuse needs to be taken seriously by organisations. ‘Stamp it out!’
9. What three things would you change today to make the lives of autistic people easier?
As I have written in my book, it comes down to mindsets how we treat people who are different to ourselves (disability, race, religion, sexual orientation). If we respect each other, humanity is much better for it. We all prosper together.
10. If you won the lottery tomorrow, what three things would be top of your list to do?
I do not seek to be wealthy. Wealth comes with responsibility. I do not regard myself as a materialist. I am more to protecting the environment and making the most use of what I have. I make clothes last. I repair old shoes because new ones take ages to wear in. I have not driven a car in 20 years. I suppose if I won the lottery I would put the heating on more often and maybe set up projects to help the local community.
If you would like to purchase Michael’s fantastic book, please click here.
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