Monday, 3 April 2017

I'm autistic, what does that mean?

My 'Autism journey' started back in 2002 when I was a stubborn, hormonal, exam-stressed, self-centred 15 year old girl - which if you exchange 15 for 30 is still a pretty accurate description of me!

My mother had attended a course that featured Ros Blackman speaking about being an autistic female and a lot of things she had said were ringing true about our home life. So, over the next few weeks she put in place some of the suggested strategies for autistic people (at the time) and then broached the subject with me after I mentioned how much better things had been recently.

It took a long time for me to process the resulting conversation. At this point in my life my only reference points for Autism were the film Rain Man and the 'classic' autism of those in long-term institutions. My fear was huge, this was 2002, pre-Twitter and definitely pre the current availability of role models and positive messages.

Luckily for me I had been brought up by teachers, maths and science to be precise, so I dealt with the issue the same way I did anything I encountered that I didn't understand - my beloved set of encyclopaedias! Of course they didn't exactly have much in the way of comforting information there but I did end up learning a lot about the way the brain works and the chemistry of the body and briefly entertained the notion of becoming a neurologist . . .

Ultimately I forged my own path with understanding what the word 'autism' meant to me, I already had a lot of coping strategies and masking methods in place so continuing them on with conscious knowledge wasn't that difficult. Well, at that point in my life it wasn't. Between that conversation at 15 and going to my GP at 17 as far as I recall it was business as usual at home, which naturally mean lots of loud and emotionally charged rows, lots of stress at school, lots of mistakes and lots of spending time on my own - not always out of choice.

My biggest mistake came on the day of my GP appointment - I decided at the last minute to go alone and barred my mum from coming with me. To this day I cant remember my reasoning or why on earth I thought that would be a good idea.My GP (a lovely man that I hold no ill-will to) did exactly what any GP would do at that point when presented with an emotional, tongue-tied 17 year old girl - he asked me about school and home and concluded that it was just normal life, growing up and hormones and exam stress.

Of course I didn't take this very well but the reaction didn't come out until I was long left the surgery and so in no position to show him that he was wrong and that there was more to my problems than just the standard worries of a teenager.I avoided going back to the doctors for quite a while after that and quickly stopped mentioning to other people what we had self-diagnosed me as. Looking back there are moments I wish I had been diagnosed or on the referral pathway already by that point, times when teachers caused me problems or social situations got very difficult.

I remember one instance that still makes me burn with anger when I think of it - my A-level chemistry teacher had informed us before the Easter break that we needed to get our coursework to her before we came back to school for the Summer Term so she could mark them and send them off in time. Not a problem, she even gave us her home address to post them to over the holidays. In the final week of term she also mentioned that as the school had an INSET day on Friday we could go in to use the school space to finish off our coursework and hand it in then if we wanted to. I didn't want to, I already had plans with my family that day as we'd known we had an INSET day off that day for weeks. So I didn't go in, instead I laboured on with the coursework over the first week of the holiday (I really hated my project by that point!) and sent it off to her home address from my dad's house in the second week. When we returned to school for the Summer Term she pulled me aside at the end of our first Chem lesson to basically have a massive go at me. She very sarcastically and (in my opinion) nastily asked me why she had had to wait until the end of the holiday to complete her marking and assessment of the classes work when every other person in the class had come in on the INSET day to hand in their work then?! She concluded by stating that she was not happy with me and that she expected better - all of this in-front of the students who had filled in for the next lesson with her! To be honest it was probably only the fact that she was heavily pregnant saved her from my explosion of rage, instead I meekly turned and exited as fast as I could with my face burning with shame and ran for cover in the girls loos. I never confronted her about her inconsistency or way of handling the situation. I'm pretty sure she knew I hated her from that moment on as I'm not exactly a subtle person when angry but it was mostly passive aggressive and fairly pointless as we only had 6 weeks left before the exams by that time. But I still have a burning anger buried in my memories because of her, I still have a strong desire to verbally rip her to shreds in front of colleagues and family, I still wish to hear her grovel an apology to me for the way she made me feel like a piece of shit on her shoe that day.

As I've got older and have understood my emotional reactions to situations more I've gotten a better handle on how to process and respond to those sort of scenarios; I even practise them in my dreams! The sub-conscious mind is a phenomenal place and can process and figure out things so much more quickly than my waking mind can. In my dreams I'm still autistic, I still experience sensory overload and processing delay but I can 'hit pause' on things (well, in dreams anyway, nightmares are a totally different topic!) My dreams allow me to consider different ways I might react to things and how best to approach situations. I have dreamt of receiving the news of family members deaths, of being caught up in a terror attack, of being assaulted, of finding myself under arrest, of being fired, of pretty much any situation where my immediate reaction is going to need to be controlled and managed. I need to dream these scenarios so if, god forbid, they ever occur the freeze-shock hopefully wont be as powerful, wont be as debilitating, wont be as damaging.

I never like planning for the worst, I don't think I'm a naturally pessimistic person, but I do believe in the pragmatism of being prepared for all eventualities. Well, maybe not all, I haven't dream-rehearsed a zombie invasion or alien attack - Hollywood covers that well enough anyway! But the principle I adhere to is that I need to be able to predict my own reactions to things - how can I possibly hope to understand other peoples actions and reasonings if I cant work out my own?

I often think of Tony Attwood's wonderful phrase about autistic boys and girls where, to paraphrase, he states that while Asperger describe his boys as 'little professors' that autistic girls are more like 'little psychologists' - in short, we *want* to learn about other human beings, we *want* to understand this world we live in. I actually slightly disagree with Attwood in that I believe autistic females are 'little anthropologists' - we study the environment to learn from it, looking abstractly at why certain interactions happen but doing it in a range of ways, some of us immerse ourselves in the culture we are trying to learn from where as others maintain an observational distance.

I've always been fascinated with other people and with learning more about people in general. As a small child my obsession was my own fingers - the movement of the bones and muscles/tendons, the different ways they could be manipulated and move, how different peoples hands look to each other. As I grew my focus shifted more to peoples differences in general, I always notice height, skin tone, hair colour and type, face set and finger length in strangers. I'm not discriminatory in what I notice, I just mentally record it as a way of identifying an individual, taking note of how their hair reminds me of my Grandma or their hands look like a pianists or their torso is longer than my legs! Leg length is another thing that fascinates me, shaving my legs always takes forever because I inevitably become distracted by thoughts of how long my legs are and how did they ever get to be that length from the tiny baby legs I was born with! (and I've not exactly got long legs at only 5ft3" tall!)

At times I wonder if I should have used this keen interest to pursue a career in medicine or physiology. But I think my fascination with the human mind will always overrule my wonderings about how tendons make bones move. I *need* to understand why people think the way they do, why we interact in the social grouping manners we do, why we have desires for communities and social structures in our lives.

Being autistic gives me an added desire to learn about these things, I will never able to know what its like to not be autistic, to truly understand just how instinctive the understandings and reactions are to those who are not autistic.

When I went off to university aged 18 I was full of ideas and passions, I wanted to understand not people but the universe as a whole. My degree was Astrophysics, I wanted to become a theoretical physicist like Stephen Hawking, Galileo Galilei, James Clerk Maxwell, Robert Oppenheimer. I wanted to change the way we understood the world we exist in and learn more about *why* we exist.

This state of mind lasted until about halfway through my second year. By that point I'd immersed myself in the student union, learning through observation and casual interaction, finding out that it was (for me) the perfect way to test the waters of social activity, taking part in structured meetings and events before dipping into the more alcohol-based aspects of the post-meeting hitting the bar. I was surrounded by likeminded people who were passionate about helping others and doing things for the right (sometimes righteous!) reasons and more than anything they were accepting of me for who I was - quirks and all!

The more time I spent in this crazy bubble world that was, as a friend put it, 'Blue Peter on speed' I started to realise that my ideas for my future and career were starting to look very dull and miserable. Suddenly the idea of spending the next 40 years of my life in a lab with the same dozen people endlessly staring at numbers and fuzzy images seemed like the worst kind of hell. I'd not enjoyed much of my second year of studies anyway, my modules 'choices' were not exactly what I had wanted to study - the module of 'Multimedia Image Processing' (or something similar I've erased the knowledge from my memory!) was the beginning of the end for me. The module started with an introductory lecture, well, it should have done, instead what it started with was the professor going over the module aims and then launching into an overview of what we already knew. Except I didn't. I hadn't spent my teenage years playing computer games and fiddling with images and computer graphics and all that sort of thing, I literally understood the word pixel in the spiel he reeled off. So from day one I was massively behind my fellow peers and completely adrift in the module with no real desire to catch up as I found the subject mind-numbingly boring and not at all related to what I wanted to learn!

Things came to an apex in my mind whilst on a once-in-a-lifetime holiday with my mum and brother in Egypt. It was a place all three of us had wanted to go for years, an ancient civilisation we were fascinated with. Sitting on the top of the cruise boat on the River Nile looking out at miles of desert and historical temples and monuments I found myself realising the truth behind my feelings; I wanted to do something worthwhile with my life, something were I could affect other people's happiness in the here and now, not some abstract concept of improving human knowledge but a tangible legacy of impact on real people.

It was in this moment I also realised that I had truly come to terms with my identity as an autistic person and that I was ready to try again with the diagnosis process and commit to seeing it through to the end no matter what.

Those 10 days in the African sun were genuinely life-changing for me, I found a piece of myself that I hadn't known was missing and I started to put together a quantifiable image of my future. Within a few days of returning to university I had started the paperwork required to switch Faculties (virtually unheard of!) changing my degree from an MSc in Astrophysics to a BA in Social Policy! It would take a lot of work still and I had to restart right at Year One as my A-levels of Maths, Further Maths, Physics and Chemistry weren't exactly applicable to a sociology subject but I knew I was on the right track.

I was lucky in the respect that my parents had always taught me that it was okay to change your mind, that there was nothing wrong with admitting you had made a mistake. By giving me that upbringing they gifted me the skills to be able to take control of a life I was unhappy with and change it into one that had the potential for future happiness.

Now all I needed was that pesky diagnosis . . . .

[To Be Continued]

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