Seeing Below The Surface

Podcast Episode 69 Accepting ourselves by embracing our strengths and understanding our weaknesses is key to our own happiness. How to do this is the theme of this episode with Alis Rowe founder of The Curly Hair Project.

Alis talks about her own journey from when she was diagnosed in her early twenties with Asperger syndrome. She explains why she created The Curly Hair Project, what is does, and how it aims to help people on the autism spectrum and their families. Alis also shares some practical ideas that she has implemented to enable her to navigate difficult situations and live the life she wants. Some of the ideas are simple, and could apply to any young person with additional needs, but they make a massive day to day difference to someone’s life once they start using them.

Alis also advocates the importance of putting yourself first and making decisions around what is best for you, not others. She acknowledges this won’t always be the easiest option because it requires you to sometimes be very honest with those around you and often with yourself.

Finally, Alis reminds us to be ourselves because, as she says, “Where the magic happens in life is where you embrace the natural strengths and interests that a person has.” We could all do with a little more magic in our lives and listening to Alis should serve as a reminder to all of us that we are so much more than what the world sees on the surface.

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Podcast Transcript
DEBRA: Welcome to Episode 69 of the Journey Skills podcast. Although my focus is often around talking to people who provide solutions or resources in three areas that Journey Skills focuses on which is work, relationships, and daily living, the other part of Journey Skills is very much about sharing stories. When I started these were mainly from parents’ point of view because you always start with what you know, but recently, I’ve been really fortunate to be able to speak to people who have additional needs and see these as an asset and something that they can work with, and that’s a positive message that I definitely want to share with my own daughter.

As a parent, I find this actually as much of a help as finding yet another amazing employer or volunteer organization really helping to change the lives of people because I hope that one day, my daughter will come to see her additional need as an asset and part of what makes her an amazing human being.

So this week, I’m talking to Alis Rowe, the founder of the Curly Hair Project. I’ll let Alis tell her own story but for me personally, this was about talking to someone who shares her story to inspire other people and talking to someone who’s living the kind of life we all want, regardless of any needs; a life of purpose.

The other thing I got from our discussion was the value of tools and sometimes how it’s the very simple things like a To-do list that can really help a young person manage their lives. So Alis shares some very practical solutions as well, but really why this podcast is worth a listen I believe is to hear Alis talk about how to get rid of the things that don’t matter in life.

So the podcast isn’t just a story but it also offers proven solutions that have worked for her and may work for your young person. This is a podcast I’ll ask my daughter to listen to because I think it will resonate with her and I hope it will resonate with you as well.

DEBRA: Today I am talking to Alis Rowe from the Curly Hair Project. Welcome, Alis.

ALIS: Thank you very much.

DEBRA: Can you tell me a little bit about the Curly Hair Project and how it got started?

ALIS: So the Curly Hair Project is a social enterprise that supports people on the autistic spectrum, their families and professionals; so teachers and doctors and anyone working with autistic people. I started it just after I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome in my early 20s because I couldn’t really find many resources in particular for adult women so I created my own. And it was sort of like a way to teach myself about autism but it happened to teach a lot of other people as well. It just grew from there really. So, I’ve written a lot of books; my autobiography is really, really popular. And I’ve written about 25 books and make films and now I’m making rap songs. And it’s just really grown over the last few years.

DEBRA: What’s the main purpose of the Curly Hair Project?

ALIS: Just to educate people, really. I think a lot less now that it’s directly for autistic people, everyone tells me that my work can benefit everyone. It can just make you a more insightful and empathetic person and I really focus on equipping people with practical strategies that can actually change your life and make your life easier. And it’s also to educate people that not everyone sees things in the same way, that someone who appears very shy and unsociable on the surface, might be having some quite severe challenges underneath.

DEBRA: Can we talk a little bit about some specific issues that young adults might have on the spectrum or otherwise (as you said it can apply to other people not necessary people who have autism) things like prioritizing tasks and managing deadlines, have you got some tactics that you could suggest that might help people to manage those issues?

ALIS: So autistic people in particular might have difficulties with this because these skills are all to do with executive functions which is the area in our brain that’s responsible for things like planning, memory, prioritizing, and not getting distracted on regulating our emotions but I think a lot of people have problems with those things anyway. So I think we can all learn to get better at prioritizing and meeting deadlines.

So prioritizing tasks can be difficult because a person may struggle to recognize what’s important, for example, an autistic person might just think that everything’s important otherwise why would they be doing it. So, I think it’s really important to help someone recognize what important means and to determine the value of things because that will help you know what to do first.

Managing deadlines can be really hard because a person might have a bad sense of time. They might not realize how long something is going to take. Sometimes I have a problem where I might have a lot of tasks, for example when I was at university and I just kind of had the assumption that every task was going to take the same amount of time when if I had just maybe taken five minutes at the start of every week and seriously looked at each task and properly considered how long it was going to take, how difficult it was, I think that would have been a really good tip for me to use and for anyone to carry on with.

I’ve also read about something called The Urgency Important Matrix which was created by an American president. So, it’s all about working out which tasks are most important to do based on how important they are and how urgent they are and getting rid of things that are not urgent and not important. So, I find that really useful as well. I also really like to do tasks that are really quick done straight away because it gets some completed straight away and that can be really empowering and freeing.

One thing that was really important and helpful to me with regards to learning to prioritize was actually deciding in my life what was important to me because it’s really difficult to prioritize things if you have to do so many different things every day and your diary is really full. And one of the reasons my diary was always full is because I was doing too many things to please other people or I was doing things that I thought I should be doing rather than things that I actually wanted to do.

For example, spending a lot of time with friends or trying to make new friends when inside I knew that really wasn’t me and I needed a lot more alone time. So, as soon as I started thinking about what was seriously important to me, it really helped me sort of declutter my life and then I had a lot less to do each day. So that was really important. It’s okay to use some hours for other people sometimes but we should always remember that it’s our own needs that come first and if we’re not looking after our own needs, then we can’t really help or support other people either.

Another strategy that I always have when I prioritize is thinking about what’s the worst that will happen if I don’t do something and if the consequence is really bad then that’s an obvious sign that I should do something straight away. Another good way to prioritize or think about what’s important as well so if not doing a task will hold up other tasks for other people, that’s another way to make sure you know what to focus on. I think that’s really helpful as well.

DEBRA: Another area that you provide resources on your website is around diet and exercise and a lot of people struggle with finding the balance between diet and exercise and how to stay healthy, you got any tips that you could suggest to help people in that area?

ALIS: I totally relate to that. I think a lot of people over-complicate nutrition and being healthy. I think eating properly is really important for mental health. A lot of people can have quite bad moods and they don’t sleep well and they get distracted a lot. And a lot of that can be attributed to them not getting enough exercise or having a bad diet and they don’t always realize that. So, I think eating well is really important.

I really just focus on eating the five food groups in moderation and making sure I get enough protein (I’m a weightlifter so eating a lot of protein is really important) and healthy fats because they’re really good at helping you to concentrate. And I eat a lot of vegetables as well. But I don’t really think it should be more complicated than that because life is so complicated already, so I think that’s fine, and obviously, I eat sweet things as well.

DEBRA: As you’re a weight lifter what are the benefits of sports do you think?

ALIS: The benefit is obviously the physical benefits and depending on what’s you do, there’s also a really strong social benefit as well because it can be a means of making friends and socializing but there are other benefits as well that people might not necessarily realize because sports by its nature is very technical and in order to get better at it, you have to actually dedicate to do it on a regular basis. So, it teaches you a good work ethic really of being disciplined and practicing and being persistent  and they’re really, really important skills that transfer to other aspects of your life.

DEBRA: One of the things that you talk about is not expecting the world to change to fit around someone who has autism. People adapting in working together and understanding each other, and that’s sort of big area, isn’t it in general when it comes to additional needs, and the whole idea of how much do you have to adapt. Do you think that there have been changes in terms of people accepting differences? You mentioned very early about people becoming more aware, but do you think there’s more understanding or acceptance?

ALIS: Definitely. When I think back to when I was at school like twenty years ago or even ten years ago when I was at university, even in that time, I don’t really think anyone really knew the word autism, let alone knew what to do with it. So I think so much has changed in the last five years really. I hear a lot of stories now about families with children and their children get all the right support and I think autism is a very open subject now and no one would really be surprised if you talk about or said that you had it because it’s quite widespread now, that knowledge which is excellent. And in turn, I think that has made people more empathetic of people who are different which is really important.

I think that where the magic happens in life is where you embrace the natural strength and interest that a person has so that they can end up sharing their true talents with the world, I think that’s really important which is why I love what I do now because I think I love writing and it’s what I was made to do. So, being able to do it has been amazing. So I think nurturing someone so that they can use their differences, their uniqueness in a positive way is really important rather than trying to change them or make them more mainstream for example.

DEBRA: Do you think there are still stereotypes around autism and what people are like when they have autism and people make assumptions?

ALIS: Yes, I do. I think the worst assumption that kind of affects me is some people think, they assume that I won’t want to do some things so they won’t even bother inviting me out or something. Of course, they think, ‘Oh, she’s autistic, she might not want to do that or be too much for her’. Someone actually said they deliberately didn’t invite me because they thought it would be too much for me. I know they were well-meaning but I didn’t like that assumption. I would much prefer to be asked, you know what I mean?

DEBRA: Yes there’s a saying “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” and not everybody. That’s the reason I asked because I just wanted whether or not you thought that there are still assumptions.

ALIS: That’s another good point as well. I think, as you say, we should always remember that everyone is different and I think sometimes an assumption that autistic people are very quite and introverted and always want to be on their own (and even I thought that as well). It was only very recently that I realized that a lot of them are not like that, they’re actually very extroverted and chatty and they want friends, they just maybe don’t have the social skills to be able to do that. So I think that’s really important to make people aware of as well. And it’s sort of fascinates me how autism is so diverse in that way but it is!

DEBRA: It’s sort of as you say there’s so many different assumptions about people that are not necessarily true because as you say, someone would think that maybe someone with autism doesn’t want to go out and do things when in fact, they could be very sociable. And someone else would be the opposite and go ‘Actually I don’t want to do that’ and you don’t have to have autism to not wanto to go out all the time with other people either.

ALIS: I always think that we should remember that everyone has their own personality as well and is a human being at the end of the day.

DEBRA: I suppose someone gets a diagnosis then that’s when assumptions get made because if you are diagnosed with a particular additional need then everything that goes with that maybe takes away from your personality and makes you someone who has, for example, autism.

ALIS: I definitely agree with that and I think that’s one of the drawbacks of having a diagnosis and the decision to tell people that you have ASD is one to think about really because unfortunately, a lot of people will also change their behavior and their thinking about you as well once you have a diagnosis in a way you don’t want them to as well. So, that can be really hard.

DEBRA: Just finally then, can we talk a little bit about the resources that you have available and the kind of things that you do, you mentioned you did rap songs and things like that, but what else do you have available for people and where can they go to find them?

ALIS: If you go to our website thegirlwiththecurlyhair.co.uk, you’ll find all the resources there. So, as I said, I’m primarily an author that’s what I love to do and I have a lot of books and they’re all really well-reviewed and endorsed by the leading psychologist, Professor Tony Attwood. In the last couple of years, I’ve also started making animated short films and that’s been very exciting; all based on the character, the girl with the curly hair and how she interacts with the world around her. So, we have little series like A Day at Primary School for the Girl with the Curly Hair all the way going up to A Day at Work with the Girl with a Curly Hair.

And we do training as well around the UK, so we do courses and again, they’re all to do with autism but I think a lot of people can benefit from it as well and we’re just sort of going into unconscious bias and empathy training as well. And we do webinars so you can access our training from your home, your computer, or your mobile at home if you don’t live near to our training courses. As I said, I’ve just started making rap songs as well, so that’s awesome.

DEBRA: Is that just something that you decided you wanted to do and tried?

ALIS: When I was a teenager, I was really into rap music and I used to study lyrics for hours every day and I used to rap to my favorite songs and I sort of got out of it as I started working but I had an opportunity last year to make a theme song for The Curly Hair Project so that kind of set me off again and now I’m working on an album. So that’s very exciting. And I think it’s a really cool way to get the message across as well about autism because a few of the songs are about autism.

DEBRA: Yeah, people accept information in different ways, don’t they? So someone might find that an easier way to get the information than some other way.

ALIS: Yeah, definitely.

DEBRA: That’s a really good idea. So, just very quickly, so the plans for the future, rap album, more books?

ALIS: Can’t really think of any more books that I need to write. I kind of covered most of the topics for the time being but I always say that and then within a few months, I write something else because I can’t stop myself but yeah, definitely songs and I really want to make of each a length film as well. That’s my aim for the future.

DEBRA: About the Curly Hair Girl type thing?

ALIS: Yes, a proper like 60-72 animated films.

DEBRA: Alis, thank you so much for talking to me. I really appreciate. The website is amazing and obviously, I’ll put links to everything. Thank you very much for your time.

ALIS: Thank you so much.

DEBRA: Key takeaways? Well, this week I’m going to take a quote from Alis, “Where the magic happens in life is where you embrace the natural strengths and interests that the person has”. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Resources
The Girl With The Curly Hair website
The Girl With The Curly Hair on Facebook

Please subscribe to this podcast and if you have a story you would like to share I would love to hear from you just email debra@journeyskills.com

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