Back in the early 1990’s I remember being tasked with clearing away rubbish and leaves from outside of my classroom. The Year Five and Six classes were kept outside of the main school building and situated in a portacabin. The cabins, placed on the edge of the school yard would occasionally accumulate trash and debris from the trees that surrounded the school. Every so often the teacher, a tall man with a thick black beard, would select two children, most likely randomly, to go outside and tidy up. This one particular day, it was my turn. I donned my coat and, with another student, who I will call Phil as I have no idea of his name, we started tidying up. The slate grey Lancashire sky promised rain, a light wind made the empty crisp packets slightly sway. Phil and I got to talking. About whatever it is kids in those days chatted about.
After a few minutes we fell silent, then Phil told me, “You know, I’d be your friend if you wasn’t so weird.” Not much I could say to that. ‘Thanks’, ‘Sorry’ or ‘OK’ was probably all I could have thought of.
Flashforward some years and I am in a pub, which no longer exists. I am out with friends from the shop I worked in. People are chatting, again, about whatever it is people in those days talked about. Girls, football, the TV, and work. People make jokes. Others respond. I say something and the group falls silent. Whatever I have said is not only unfunny but it doesn’t make sense to what the others are saying. It is a tangent too far. A link that only I can see and only I understand. This is then followed by, “Fucking hell, I’d love to know what goes on in that head of yours”. The point being inside my head is a different landscape. This landscape is one that they could not, and do not, recognise.
At Uni, the imposter syndrome was in full force as was the inability to make anything more than a small group of friends, where I felt that I was always on the outside. I would frequently say things that killed the conversation. I would also say things to my then girlfriend which was told to me by the lads in confidence. When I was pulled up on this I genuinely could not see what I had done wrong. Was this a social cue that had passed me bye, was this a result of just wanting to talk about or was this because I couldn’t keep a secret. I am not, and have never been, a good liar. This could be due to a lack of large social group growing up that I never learnt the rules or the etiquette. The friends I did have preferred to spend time with my little brother. They would go out with him and I would be at home with the dog and books. Same when I was at college as well, few friends and lots of time spent on my own. I was at Leeds Festival one year and it was late at night, I was pretty drunk. Someone ran up to me and tapping me on the shoulder called me by my brother’s name. A simple mistake but one I think is quite telling. He was well known, people preferred him, people liked him. This was because he is not only a lovely bloke but he is not weird.
I could not tell when a woman was hitting on me unless they literally sat on me. I thought this was because either they were not or that I didn’t deserve it. Obviously, getting utterly smashed all the time didn’t help either. I could write an essay in one sitting, without any research, and get a semi-decent grade. A lot of the time I wasn’t that interested in what I was writing so I made bad choices and half-arsed it. Which I have a lot of regret about.
It is not just the social cues and being a bit odd as well but more subtle differences between me and other people. When someone who would class themselves as “neurotypical”, or whatever phrase they use, reads a work of fiction they can picture what is being described in their mind’s eye. I have been told it is like they are watching a movie version of the text. It is probably why people get wound up when the televised or cinematic versions of beloved books do not match up to what they have seen. That is not a problem for me. I don’t see it and my apathy doesn’t really allow me to get too wound up about this. This then leads on to another of the diagnostic criteria. I tend to read mainly non-fiction. Whether this is because I am interested in history and due to being a man of a certain age: the Second World War. I enjoy facts and the explanations of why people have acted in the manner that they do. What brought a person to the trenches? Why did Hitler do what he did? What made Stalin such a moustachioed, paranoid madman? One of the questionnaires I did asked, ‘Is your mind like a steel vice for facts and information?’ I initially said nope. On reflection, I know a lot of things and most of it, people would class it as useless.
That said, couldn’t most of these experiences be classed as perfectly “normal”? I know lots of people who say things without thinking, who miss subtlety and nuance. Who do not recognise when someone is flirting with them. It is not as if the whole world is super aware of all of the actions and intentions of others. A lot of men are brought up to avoid their emotions and the emotions of others. Again, no one sits a boy down and says: this is how such and such makes you feel. As a result, I may lack an emotional intelligence that others have as I was brought up in the Eighties and Nineties. I am clumsy but so are a lot of others. All of these do not necessarily point to being Autistic or having Asperger’s Syndrome. The lack of female attention, or spotting it, may have been down to the fact I would be too drunk and too nervous to speak to women, explains it just as well as missing body language. If I say that I was too autistic to spot women hitting on me then it lets my own behaviour and cowardice in respect of women off the hook. Instead of being brave enough to put myself out there and to risk rejection, to risk actually living. Sometimes I think autism maybe a too convenient an excuse.
What part of all of this is autism and what part of this is just me being… well, me?