Life on the Spectrum: A World Autism Awareness Week Special

Whilst I usually keep my posts on this blog themed around creative topics, I’ve decided to do something different this time. World Autism Awareness Week started last Saturday, but I’ve known about it for a good few months. So, I decided it would be time to open up about my High Functioning Autism.

I can guarantee a good half of my friends have no clue that I’m autistic, especially since it’s not something I talk about on a day-to-day basis with those I know. With that said, it’s definitely something that needs to be talked about, so here it goes. Here are the pros and cons of my autism.

Pro – It gives me my creative spark

I honestly think the biggest reason I have as much passion as I do for designing, and in turn have as many skills in being a designer, is because of my autism. Whilst most other boys when I was in school were are into things like sports, games and construction, I was far more engrossed in crafts and technology. I also knew from a very early age that I wanted to do something artistic when I grew up.

And why do I think my autism is the reason for this? Well, all of the autistic friend I have, both high and low functioning, are equally passionate about creative topics. Some are more into music, some are more into fashion, and some are more into storytelling. But all of them are creative, and I wouldn’t give up my creative spark for the world, especially if it also meant giving up these friends.

Con – It cripples my socialising skills

Easily the biggest problem my autism causes me is that it makes it extraordinarily difficult for me to socialise with people. For one thing, I am easily overcome with shyness when talking to someone, especially for the first time, and especially if they’re talking to someone else. Often, just saying “hello” to someone takes a lot of self-encouragement.

For another, I have an awful lot of difficulty making eye-contact with people. I have to really force myself to look someone in the eye, and even then, it only lasts for a split second. The only way I can describe the feeling of looking into people’s eyes is like looking into a pair of black holes, since the darkness of the pupils just never seems to end.

Pro – It makes me truly dedicated to things

Whilst I may not be into the same things as most other men, when I get passionate about something, I really get passionate about it. This includes my love for design, which can be evident in the 43 books I read for my Modernism/Postmodernism dissertation (excluding journals, websites, and the documentary film I watched).

Furthermore, if I’m given some kind of job to do, I try my hardest to not only do the job, but to do it either better, or do a lot more of it. I will spend every spare second examining every detail to see if there’s some way I can make an improvement, rarely ever telling myself that “It’ll do”. This, again, is a common trait for autistic folk, that when they have a goal they want to achieve, especially if it’s linked to something they feel strongly for, they go to the ends of the earth to achieve it.

Con – My parents had the hardest time raising me

Nowadays, I’m a quiet but friendly, calm and approachable person, which is a million miles away from the kind of child I was. Because I would easily be traumatised by change (more details regarding that to come), if anything I didn’t expect to happen happened, I would often begin screaming and try anything in my power to stop it happening, even if that meant me becoming physical.

Also, because I didn’t clearly understand the world around me, I would often do things which I never realised weren’t right, such as break something or take something from someone without their permission.

I’m none of these things today, but the only reason is because my parents, especially my mother, loved me regardless. Through their love, they raised me to be a better man, and I am forever thankful for that.

Pro – It makes me understand things others struggle with

Autistic people are neither smarter, not dimmer, than the average man. The difference is that our intelligence is focused on particular areas of our minds.

For example, being autistic, I’m especially good at systems and organisation. Not only do I plan my schedule and projects more effectively than many others do, but it means I only took half the time others did to comprehend both web-coding, and algebra.

It also allows me to have a more advanced mind for visualising things, since autistic folk like me tend to think in pictures. We can both visualise things which haven’t been created yet, and we can remember the look of something with more advanced details regular people. I can actually remember how everything looked from my earliest memory, when I was young enough to sleep in a cot.

Con – It made things you might consider ‘simple’ difficult

Whilst my autism does make me understand things others struggle to comprehend, it also has the adverse effect of making me struggle with things other people are used to, especially if there doesn’t seem to be a system involved. For example, regardless of my blog, I often struggle with reading and writing, particularly fictional material. Not only does fictional work vary more in tenses, sentence lengths and topics, but it’s also a lot less ‘matter of fact’ and uses more indirect, emotional methods of describing things (I.e. Metaphors).

Also, if there’s a change to the routine an autistic person is used to, this can often become increasingly stressful for the autistic person, since they end up becoming lost with no clear sign of where to go or what to do next. It’s like being diverted away from a road you’re used to driving on onto one you’ve never seen before. The destination might be the same, but it’s still confusing and stressful.

Let’s Talk About MMR

Yes, over 2 decades ago when the whole controversy about MMR vaccines and autism were a hot topic in the news, I was one of those children supposedly made autistic because of the vaccine (we even have before and after photographs).

Before anyone mentions them, I know the stats supposedly show no direct correlation between the two. With that said, think of it this way: some people have peanut-allergies, but we don’t go telling them that peanuts can’t cause allergic reactions since the rest of us can eat them without any side effects.

Furthermore, many of the things linked to MMR have been discovered to be potential causes of autism. Many scientists believe that autism can be a form of mercury poisoning (multiple-dose vaccines are preserved in Thiomersal, an organomercury compound), a long-term effect of contracting Rubella (what the ‘R’ in ‘MMR’ stands for), or even caused by early childhood trauma (I think having 3 diseases at once as a baby is a pretty traumatic experience).

I’m not claiming anything regarding the MMR-autism controversy. After all, I’m no scientist. All I’m saying is that we shouldn’t be so conclusive that MMR doesn’t cause autism, especially since we’re still so unsure as to what does. We’re still in very early days regarding this research, so let’s keep our minds open and let the future tell us whether or not the scientists of today were right.

My Summary

I’ve met autistic people who see it as a gift, giving them skills the average human being could only dream of having. I’ve also met autistic people who see it as a hindrance, making it hard for them to fit in with society and be mocked because of it. What do I think of my autism…? Meh…

Truth be told, I don’t really think of it as a blessing, and I don’t think of it as a curse; I just think of it as the way I am. If you asked me to describe myself with a single word, I’d probably choose ‘autistic’, since I think it says just about everything you’d want to know about me in one breath.

I do think, however, that it’s something people should at least be aware of. Autism, for better or worse, is a condition that will stick with me until the day I die, and the more that people understand it, the easier life can be for all of us. You might not think that you need to know about it, but knowing how many of my own friends never knew I was autistic, it wouldn’t surprise me if you knew many more people on the spectrum without realising it. It’s not impossible for someone with High Functioning Autism, or Aspergers Syndrome, to be undiagnosed, so keep your wits about you if you spot the signs.

So, what do you all think of autism? Do you think it’s a good thing, a bad thing, or somewhere in between? I’m interested in your opinions of it, so comment below with your thoughts regarding autism.

‘The Rack Pack’ Review

Well, here’s a first. I’m actually going to do a review of a TV Movie which has been exclusively released on BBC iPlayer, The Rack Pack!

Why am I doing this instead of something more graphic design related? Well… I actually designed some of the props for this film. Specifically, I designed these drinks-labels…

drinks labels
The labels I designed for this movie.

There’s even an old blog-post about the time I spent designing them, and watching the show be filmed. So, it only seemed right for me to review the show I helped created (if only by around 0.2%).

Synopsis

Based on true events in the early 80’s, Alex “Hurricane” Davies is a bombastic, alcoholic snooker-player whose just too good at his craft for anyone to criticise. That is until Steve “The Nugget” Davis comes along, a nerdy, ginger-haired newbie to the sport who spends his spare time playing arcade games and staying clear of the booze.

Steve’s manager, Barry Hearn, knows he has the skills, but not so much the personality for being in the limelight. So, he gives the lad a new haircut, a new suit, and trains him to be the well-manored yet startling snooker-professional we all associate with the sport today. But as Steve gets more positive publicity throughout the tournament, it looks like it may be more than Alex’s championship that’s on the line here.

Davis made to look threatening.
Davis made to look threatening.

The Good Points

Let’s start with the actors in this film, because they all did wonderful jobs. Luke Treadway did really well as Higgins, especially as we watched his life go down the pan. Will Merrick was really good as Davis, too, and it was fun to watch him grow from being the underdog to the quasi-nemesis. Kevin Bishop was spot on with his voice when playing Hearn, as well. Honestly, there isn’t really an actor or actress in this movie who I was swap. They were all right on the money.

Higgins and Davis prepare to lay against each other.
Higgins and Davis prepare to lay against each other.

I also thought this was written especially well, not only for the memorable characters and sequences, but also because it managed to cater to both sports-fans and the general audience. I’m saying this, because even though I’m not into snooker by any stretch of the imagination, I still felt as if I could grasp how rules of the sport worked simply by watching the film. I didn’t have to think too hard about what they were, I could just watch them play and grasp if they were doing well or not.

By the way, were these actors really playing with real balls? There’s one continuous shot I remember in which we see Higgins pot them all one after the other, and I was trying to figure out whether or not this was really him doing it, or whether there were some very clever effects being used in post-production. Either way, it was still very impressive.

Was this moment real, or some very clever movie magic?
Was this moment real, or some very clever movie magic?

Speaking of which, I loved it how cinematic this movie felt. It didn’t feel like the director shrugged his shoulders and said “oh well, it’s only going to be on iPlayer, so we don’t have to work as hard on it”. No, I actually felt as if I could watch this on the silver-screen and be very satisfied with what I saw. I loved the desaturated colour-palette, I loved how the editing flowed seamlessly between all of the different camera angles, and admittedly, I’m a sucker for the 2.39:1 aspect ratio. There’s just something about wide-screen that I fall for every time.

I realised this back when I saw this movie being filmed, but what I didn’t realise was that what I actually saw was the movies ending. And I have to say, there’s something really chilling about this. Despite all of the editing in the finished product, I can tell you from personal experience that this scene was actually acted and filmed in one continuous shot (albeit multiple takes), and it really felt like these two characters had been in this mad journey this entire time. They had their highs, and they had their lows, and with the way they were talking to one another and saying their farewells, it actually kind of left an impact on me.

A still from the very shot I got to see being filmed.
A still from the very shot I got to see being filmed.

My Little Criticisms

What, you didn’t think I was just going to be calling this movie perfect on the pure basis I had some involvement in it, did you?!

Well, I for one think honesty is the best policy, and I think it’s only respectful to be honest with the crew of this movie about the little problems I had in order to know what improvements could be made in the future. And besides, it really was only minor problems I had with the show.

Most notably, it was simply that I noticed a few details in the props they used which gave the game away that they weren’t real. For example, when one character stuck a cigarette in his mouth, I could see the indentation of where the fake logo was glued over. I can’t really criticise the show for that, though, because the naked eye wouldn’t have noticed. You’ve got to really know what you’re looking for to spot these errors.

Also, the soundtrack could have perhaps been worked on. Don’t get me wrong, the actual playlist is fantastic. One of the songs they used, Baba o’Riley from The Who, is actually my favourite song (I love songs with a strong build-up). But whenever a song started playing, it seemed to come out of nowhere. Once again, perhaps that’s simply a case of me being farmiliar with the material.

Overall Opinion

On the whole, I found this to be a really well-produced, cared-for, enjoyable TV movie, and surprisingly enjoyable for those not into Snooker. If it comes out on DVD sometime soon, nothing’s going to stop me from buying a copy.

Now, I’m not exactly the best person for making predictions for award-season. I thought Inside Out might have been a contender for Best Picture at the Oscars this year, and it wasn’t (good grief, will an animated movie EVER win Best Picture?!) With that said, this did remind me quite a bit of another TV movie I found to be exceptional, Murdered by my Boyfriend, and that had its fair share of BAFTA nominations.

So, keep your eyes peeled, folks, because this might be a BAFTA contender.

Keep your eyes on this, Higgins!
You heard me, Higgins!

If you fancy watching this movie, feel free to click here and experience the rack pack play the game the only way they know how!

Christmas Traditions You Never Knew Were Commercialised

It’s almost become a cliche to say that Christmas has become too commercialised, that it’s all about buying expensive gifts for one another and John Lewis adverts, and not about the traditional messages of good-will for all men and women.

What you probably don’t realise, however, is that many of the things we typically call ‘traditional’ at christmastime are probably more commercialised than you originally thought. Don’t believe me? Well, just read these examples below…

Father Christmas’s Design

commercial christmas santa
(Yes, I know even British folk are calling him Santa nowadays, but screw it, I still prefer Father Christmas.)

I remember being told back in primary school that the fat man with the red suit and big, white beard was popularised by the Haddon Sundblom illustrations for Coca Cola. Heck, the company glorifies their ties with his design!

However, it isn’t actually that clear which brand made his design official. There are sources to say that Thomas Nast was the one who popularised the look with his illustrations of the Santa Suit for Harpers Weekly, whilst other sources claim the design came from wooden carvings that were handed out during a 1804 New York Historical Society meeting.

What is clear, though, is that the brands that have helped to influence the overall design of Father Christmas took great inspiration from the Clement Clarke Moore poem, ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’ (1823) (better known as ‘The Night Before Christmas’).

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

commercial christmas rudolph
Yet another tradition influenced by ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’ is the names of Father Christmas’s eight reindeer. Whilst Rudolph was invented long after the poem was written, he has pretty much become synonymous with the flying reindeer in present day. And as we all know, he was first conceived in that classic Christmas song. Right? Wrong!

Back in the 1930’s, the American retail-enterprise, Montgomery Ward, handed out free colouring books to children. However, they decided to produce their own books to save on the financial costs of buying others. And thus, they hired Robert L. May to create Rudolph as the face for their own-brand colouring books. It would be another 10 years before May allowed his brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, to convert the words of that book into the song we all know and love.

Initially, May didn’t own the copyright to Rudolph, and didn’t receive any royalties for his work. However, Montgomery Ward handed the copyright over to him, since his wife was terminally ill, and they wanted to help him pay for debt he was in from having to pay for medical bills.

Robins on Christmas Cards

commercial christmas robin
This is probably the most surprising of all Christmas traditions, in terms of which are commercialised and which aren’t. Many of us would like to believe that the distinctively British tradition of red-breasted robins as a symbol of Christmas is because of their prevalence during the winter.

Yet the reason we see robins on cards is because they were intended to be a joke. Back in the 1800’s, British postmen wore bright-red uniforms to match the branding of The Royal Mail, which gave them the nickname ‘robins’. And, of course, it was the 19th Century when some of our most familiar traditions came about, such as Mince Pies and Christmas Trees.

Therefore, illustrators caught onto the link between robins and their delivery of cards to people’s doors every winter, and out the robins on the front of Christmas Cards as a homage to the men who made card-giving possible. Thankfully, the tradition still lives on today, in large part due to the Royal Mail never losing its distinctive shade of red.

What about you? Do you think there are any Christmas traditions which are surprisingly commercial when you look into their origins? If so, let me know in the comment section below!

And regardless, have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Why I Love ‘Design Swansea’ Meet-Ups

I was absolutely gutted last week when I missed a‘Design Swansea’ meet-up for the first time. Ever since I first learnt about them, I’ve attended every single month. It’s just a shame that the date of this months clashed with pre-booked events.

So, to make up for it, I thought this’d be a good time to explain why I love going to these meet-ups. Furthermore, it might be nice to give you, my readers, an insight into why going to any sort of meet-up is worth the journey.

I Always Learn Something New.

Every time I attend, I always make sure to bring something I can write on. There are so many new things I can learn, and perhaps even research into further, I just need something to get it all down on. I find it hard to think of a presentation I’ve seen which I didn’t find to be worth listening to in one way or another, which shows you just how intriguing they are.

After all, my blog post before this one was actually inspired by a statistic that was mentioned in one the talks I listened to. He might have talked at the speed of lightning, but, hey, he’s a highly enjoyable character, and it allows me to practice my short-hand!

I Can Get Some Free Advice.

Nobody is perfect at their profession. Even those who are most dedicated to their work can either make a mistake or just not know where to go. So, it only makes sense, for when someeone in a profession like mine gets stuck, to turn to someone I can trust for advice.

These meet-ups are fantastic places for that. I was struggling one time to get a piece of HTML right, and after a short conversation with Gareth Evans (who I believe also designed the meet-up logo), I asked him if he could think of where the problem was from the screenshot I showed him. Kindly, he offered me some advice as to what the correct code to enter was. If I didn’t meet him at this meet up, I’d still be struggling right now.

I Can Get Away from the Computer.

This isn’t just a concern for graphic designers, as at least half of all jobs now requite some sort of computer work. And even if you’re on that computer doing a job you enjoy, it’s hardly ideal to be stuck in front of a screen, day in and day out, for the rest of your life.

That’s why it’s nice to have an event for us designers to go to where we can break the deadly cycle and actually interact with others. We can talk about how we’re doing in life, and as mentioned earlier, we can bounce both advice, and opinions, off one another.

It Allows for a Friendly Rivalry.

Seeing as the majority of us are either freelancers or working for rival companies, it can be easy for us to start bearing grudges against one another. After all, business is based on competition. With that said, it’s always wise to avoid making enemies as much as possible, since the majority of job opportunities come from those we know.

That’s why it’s good to have an environment were we can interact like this, because it shows that we’re comfortable with being where we are and not fussed as to whether we’re better or worse than any of our competitors. Nobody goes to these meet-ups just to wine and moan, we all go to to just relax and talk about the jobs we love doing.

I Can Be Myself.

I know it’s a cliched thing to say, but I can really be myself. These meet-ups are far less restrained than an office would be, not requiring me to conform to a dress code or work to a deadline. Plus, I don’t just have to talk about graphic things. The first day I ever went there, I spent a whole hour just talking to Gemma Williams about what kind of films we enjoyed.

And why is it good to be myself at a place like this? Because by showing the kind of person I am, it helps me to befriend those who share the same love for the design industry that I have.

And A Bonus… Free Pizza!

Hey, you can’t really go wrong with that!

Last Week, I Went Back to School

Even though I’ve now been to University and had the experience of schooling which has more more in common with the ‘real world’, many of my old teachers from my secondary school remain to be my favourites. After all, I still write Christmas Letters to them each year (which reminds me…)

So, knowing that I still had some connections to Queen Elizabeth High School, I wrote an e-mail to Jason “Mr. K” Killingsworth and asked if I was able to come by for a few days and represent a former pupil who’s gone on to do their own freelance work. It didn’t take long for him to write back, and for us to start planning ideas of what I could do for my short time back at school.

What’s Changed About the School?

Not much, in all honesty. There was a slightly creepy feeling as I walked through my old corridors and the layout started coming back to me. With that said, some of the paintwork has been redone with a new colour scheme, and I could have sworn that the roofs were taller when I first started.

The only major difference there, as far as I was concerned, was that the 6th Form Common Room now had its own fully-functioning cafe. Back in my day, all we had was a microwave and a sink filled with a mountain of mugs taller than the nearby sign which read “Anyone who doesn’t wash their cups up gets a £1 fine”.

Regardless, it did feel good to be back in school, especially with the added bonus of now being a grown-up. The teachers and I could talk to one another like real adults, now, and believe me, that was a wonderful feeling to be able to talk to them in that way.

Day 1: The Presentation

On Wednesday, I gave a presentation to some of the 6th Formers who were considering having a career in a similar field. It was based on the pros and cons of going to university, as well as a way to offer some general tips on how to succeed in the creative industry.

There was a slight technical blip when my recording device unexpectedly ran out of memory, yet the day was saved when my friend whipped out her iPad and did the rest of the recording on that (I owe her one!)

Other than that, the presentation itself went really well. Feel free to watch the video below and see for yourself.

I also gave a small lecture to the pupils about how to use Adobe Flash. And you know what? This experience gives me a whole lot more respect for my teachers. Knowing a subject is one matter, being able to teach it is another. If you ever wonder why teachers get paid as much as they do, I can tell you from that little bit of experience that they deserve their pay cheques at the end of the day!

Day 2: The Open Evening

The next day, I returned to the school and took part in their open evening, when potential pupils and their parents came around to see if the school was the right one for them. And, it was a good thing that I returned, as Mr. K was unexpectedly dragged away from the D.T. room for a meeting, and I had to take the reigns for an entire hour.

It was great being able to talk to some of the parents and tell them about the sort of things I learnt from school. Furthermore, it was great to see some of the things the pupils had made and put on display for us all to see. What they had on show was more focused on product design than on marketing, yet I could still tell that some of his pupils have outstanding creative skills, and great futures ahead of them.

Once Mr. K had returned, I was able to show him some of the physical products I’d designed. Amazingly, I managed to teach him about some of the websites and companies I use for my printing services, too. They may be expensive, but they’re worth it!

Soon, it was dark, and we had to call it a night, but not before a few book recommendations and a photograph of the two of us together, holding what was easily my favourite of the products they had on show.

mrk Continue reading Last Week, I Went Back to School