I am autistic.
My brain is wired a little differently to the majority of the population, I hide it as much as I can and over the years I have got better and better at hiding it, but there is no getting away from it, my brain is wired a little oddly compare to a ‘regular’ person.
This is not a sympathy post. It is far from it – I do not want your sympathy, autism has given me a lot of advantages and has made me who I am today. I really quite like who I am too, so no sympathy please. I am happy.
What autism means in my case is a variety of things;
- I can, and often do, retreat from everyone around me, disappear into ‘my own world’, which despite what people may think, is far from ‘little’ in order to work things through.
- I lack empathy. Or more I lack intuitive empathy, I understand it and I use it, but it is not natural for me to use it or display it.
- I am stupidly good at some tasks and laughably bad at others.
- I have both infinite patience and zero patience. Very little in between.
- I struggle to read people pretty much all the time.
- I can get incredibly emotional about some things and can be entirely cold about others.
- Being the centre of attention is torture.
- Big, Loud, Crowds disorient me.
- I have had quite the career in the computing industry.
- I can break exceptionally complex things into simple tasks in my head.
- Explaining some of this stuff is very difficult.
…and quite a few things that are often inconsistent to a casual observer.
As a child had quite a rough ride. My parents did not understand my emotional difficulties. I would cry ‘for no reason’, often my father would threaten to give me something to cry for, if I did not stop crying. This made things considerably worse. But they tried. I am sure that they realised that I was not quite like other children, but perhaps ignored it.
Emotional outbursts are hard to manage, sometimes I get overwhelmed, it can be overwhelmed good, or overwhelmed bad. I mostly hide it. The run off and let it out.
At school I was never a part of the cool club, I generally hated near everyone around me, they were all happy to be part of gangs and cliques, all I wanted was to be left alone. I gained a couple of life-long friends while I was there and I am eternally grateful that I did, but generally I had few friends. Those that stayed close accepted me as who I am, not as how cool (actually anti-cool) I am. As this was pre-internet, I had no way of establishing that I was not alone in my quirkiness.
As one of a small number of ‘odd’ kids, I was a pretty major bully target, luckily my parents armed me with Judo skills, so I was able to defend myself, even if the emotional rush combined with the adrenaline rush of finding myself in a fight or flight situation would lead to me either running away, standing there like an idiot trying to process things, or in two occasions that I remember, actually reacting correctly, but then taking my fight reaction way too far and kicking the shit out of my tormentor. Sorry if you were on the receiving end of that, it actually was your fault though.
I’m not exactly proud of those reactions. But they did set a stake in the ground, only attack Max if you have plenty of backup.
When I was a about ten or twelve I remember hating my name and blaming it on the reason for my torment, I would have given everything to have a common name, as it was I stood out, not perhaps because of my unusual name, but because I was the quirkiest kid in the class. I did not realise that at the time, but I’ve had many years to think about it. It was not my name, it was my wiring.
I hated sports. No, that is not true, I generally hated PE. I loved to swim, I loved to play cricket, I loved Badminton, Cycling and Cross Country. I actually hated football. This is probably because football is much more of a team game than cricket, where a bunch of specialist form a loose alliance, football required hand/foot coordination and besides the premise of the game is so silly.
The tribal aspects of football supporters repulse me too, so I was never going to be a football fan.
Give me a game where I am self reliant, or a game where I can use my hand-eye coordination to the full and I am all in. At school, what I hated were the team games, often last to be picked, never involved in the game, the football games in PE might as well be 3-4 a side. The super popular football superstars, the teenage gods of the field would rule. I hated it, I hated them too, because those football superstars were also the bullies that would pick on you simply because you were rubbish at football.
Then there was the other problem. I am pretty much deaf.
I spent many, many years hiding both my deafness and my slightly poor eyesight.
Can you imagine the level of bullying that would have occurred if I had worn hearing aids and NHS glasses at school ?
I never contemplated taking my own life, but I think that hearing aids and glasses would have pushed me close to that conclusion at the John Cleveland College on the late 1970’s.
I faked the hearing test. While my eyesight was not 20/20, my close vision and crucially my peripheral vision was and remains amazing, I would see the slight twitch of the audiologists sleeve as he pressed the button and despite not hearing the tone, I would indicate that I had.
I aced the hearing test through having decent vision, but knew that I was in trouble.
I’m sorry parents, but I hid my deafness because I did not want the bullying to get worse. Many times I would not hear you, I was often in my own (enormous) world, but also often I was not and did not hear you. It was better for you to think I was in my own little world then realise I was very hard of hearing. That meant hearing aids, which meant even more stigma, something I really did not need at the time.
I was lucky with my vision, it was never terrible, but for reasons that are not clear, I managed to get contact lenses as a teenager. Very few people knew I wore them, I avoided the endless ‘speccy twat’ teases and the ‘did you forget your guide dog’ torments that many on my class suffered.
One of the coolest things about my wiring, is that I can break down complex problems into smaller and smaller steps and come up with solutions that often take a lot of explaining. When the Rubik cube craze hit the school, I obviously had to get one. Within a few hours I had figured out several things, building one side required that the centres were correct, the second level was easy. Then I realised that the top layer could be done with rules – or sequences that – that retained the work you had done, but moved the top pieces around. Within two days I could do it reliably, within a week I could do it in around a minute. The cool kids in school could do it, but they used a different method that involved always starting with the white side and following some instructions on a closely guarded piece of paper. My unofficial 6th form lounge record was 37 seconds. The day prior there was a young lad on the BBC News completing it in 59 seconds. I had no idea why I was not on TV.
By the time I was in my later teens, I had figured out a lot about myself and about other people, I realised that not everyone was as emotional as me and that reading people was incredibly difficult. I had very few friends, but that suited me, if I spend some time with someone I can pickup on how to read them after a while and I can enjoy a reasonably ‘normal’ relationship with them. it is not intuitive, but it works – sometimes even my closest friends and colleagues laugh at my mis-reads, but it is OK. I am accepted nowadays and that is really very nice.
If all of the above is doom and gloom, then luckily I was eventually able to kiss school and the billies and the stupid people good bye, or perhaps good riddance.
School was very, very tough. I did well despite the challenges. Had I not gone through the hell that I did at times, I would probably have done a while lot better. But perhaps I would not have learned just how revolting much of the population can be.How bigoted, how racist, how self righteous.
If school was bad, then my first years of work were terrible. I spent much of my time with the company computer, I re-wrote code and I made things better and that side of my life was fantastic. The other side, the human interaction was terrible. I lacked real-world people skills. I know this now, but back then, this was very hard work. The factory floor was a place I never wanted to be, they were loud, raucous, crude and nasty. I had to spend time there, every second was a nightmare. I would keep everything under control, then on my way back to the office, visit the toilet and cry my eyes out.
After that job, life got easier and easier, I turned out to be a dammed good software developer, then designer, then manager of developers, then process guru and product manager. It turns out that the majority of the developers I interacted with were just like me. Some were even deeper into the spectrum than me and required extra special ‘handling’ (or not, I still struggle with touch). My autism is a massive advantage when you work in an industry that requires logic and complex problem solving with minimal human interaction.
The further I got into the industry, the more I felt at home.
This is not to say I did not run into situations that I could not deal with, I had quite a few issues with ‘people’, but over they years I have mostly learned how to deal with things that many may see as ‘normal’.
One specific incident that stands out is funny looking back, and I can see how it all escalated. I was in a meeting with a marketing woman and my blackberry buzzed every few seconds, as we were in the middle of a major release I would keep glancing at the screen. All the email was not concerned with the release. I said something like ‘If I get another irrelevant e-mail I will scream’. I then got another irrelevant e-mail, so did a ‘mock’ scream and tossed the phone in the wastepaper bin. That caused me to get a HR interview, the marketing woman (300lbs, moustache, 40’s and 5-6) to ‘feel threatened’. I narrowly avoided counselling on that one, but it went on my report and I was warned to not threaten people. I left the company a few weeks later and went back to a non-people interaction role for a while.
When I was formally diagnosed, I felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. It was like I suddenly understood and the whole of the previous 40 years suddenly made a lot more sense.
I feel like the odd one out because I am the odd one out. But I am not alone, not by a very long way.
It has been a tough ride at times, I still avoid crowds, for one my deafness, even with my hearing aids, make conversation impossible, but secondly I just do not like it, I love to do my own thing or better spend time with those close to me. Even if at times they do not always truly understand….
Life is good.