Just to note, I have a new twitter account – I’m @common_lime now. I deactivated and had my old account wiped, so if I appear in your follower requests, it’s not because I stopped following you specifically 😉
I first began to suspect I was autistic while reading about autism in women for my MSc thesis research. I recognised myself in the obsessiveness, the repeated attempts to function like a ‘normal’ person followed by catastrophic burn out, and the wayward processing of sensory stimuli, one minute over-sensitive to the point of panic, and the next under-responsive, resulting in all sorts of confusion over the source of mysterious feelings of discomfort, only to realise that I was sitting on my foot or hadn’t had a drink for hours. But, I thought, I couldn’t actually be autistic, because I didn’t have problems communicating. I was shy and introverted, but I worked as a counsellor, I achieved excellent marks for written and oral assignments at university, I’d been a prolific blogger and user of internet fora, I was capable of forming long term friendships and relationships, and had been married for a year. Surely all those things suggested I could communicate effectively?
Two years later, I know many other autistic people, mostly women. Just off the top of my head, they include other counsellors, a translator, several academics, a copywriter, and a journalist. It’s almost as if – surprise! – we have a profound desire to collect information about and understand other people, the situations they create, and the language they use to achieve this. Maybe because the primary strategy we unknowingly developed for dealing with the chaos and unpredictability of others’ behaviour was to study it.
Taking the diagnostic criteria too literally does seem to be a common, if rather ironic, barrier to recognising autism in oneself. With more reading, more time for the ideas to percolate, and more exposure to the accounts of other autistic people, I started noticing more of my own difficulties around and differences in communication. Such as: the eternal puzzle of how I could be compulsively honest one minute, unable to keep secrets or tell a white lie no matter how much I wanted to; followed by hearing myself saying things that blatantly weren’t true the next. Usually about really minor, ridiculous things, for which honesty would have no cost. It took me a while to realise that I wasn’t lying as such, because I had no intention to be dishonest – I was confabulating. Anyone who has worked with people with dementia will have come across this phenomenon, in which people automatically, and seemingly unconsciously, attempt to cover up gaps in their memory that affect conversation with likely sounding material, almost like their brains are trying to keep the knowledge that anything is amiss from entering their consciousness. In my case, this seems to be a strategy I’ve unwittingly developed to deal with taking longer than most people to process the meaning of spoken words. Ever since I was a child, I’ve been shouted at for ‘not listening’, ‘not paying attention’, and ‘not caring’ when I failed to respond in the way the adult speaking to me expected. Consequently, I now have this incredibly frustrating autopilot that somehow registers speech, realises a response is required, and comes up with one with a high likelihood of being appropriate before I have consciously understood what the other person has said. Often I wrestle back manual control several seconds later, when it is already apparent that I’ve said something completely off the mark. I come out of those sorts of situations feeling pretty ashamed and stupid.
So communicating is difficult when I am caught off guard, or if something else currently holds my attention and my autopilot registers speech before the rest of me. What about when I am engaged in and concentrating on what is being said? I suppose first, difficulty depends on the context. The more stress or pressure the conversation involves, the more likely it is that I will become overwhelmed and unable to maintain the level of filtering required to stop me responding in an overly literal, pedantic, or blunt way. Because I can do that – I can make conversation, face to face, in a way that seems superficially ‘normal’ and appropriate, to the extent that people might think that maybe I’m a bit shy and prone to using long words, but wouldn’t guess that I have a diagnosed ‘disorder’ of communication. However, this takes a huge amount of effort. It literally gives me a headache to sustain the concentration necessary to communicate appropriately with, for example, more than one client in a row. It’s comparable, although different, to the conversations I have with my academic supervisor. He knows I’m autistic, and is either forgiving of or oblivious to the frequency with which I unintentionally insult him or say something otherwise inappropriate, but the things we talk about are cognitively and intellectually very challenging, and I have to concentrate hard to understand. So in this context, it is safe for me to communicate in quite an autistic (and therefore less effortful) manner, but I have to concentrate on the content; my counselling work is conceptually much more simple, but I have to be very disciplined about my tone of voice, my body language, what I actually voice versus all the stuff I filter out on the basis of inappropriateness. To me, these feel equally challenging; the difference is that I see my supervisor at most once a week for an hour or two, whereas I see clients for 10-15 hours a week. That’s a lot of concentration.
I try to schedule days into my diary where I can work from home and not have to speak for the majority of the day. I find those days really restorative. But communication isn’t limited to speech. Dealing with my business and uni admin means emails, which are also difficult. When all your best efforts still often result in people responding with surprise, indignation, or confusion, you learn to second, third, and fourth-guess every word you share with another human being, whatever the medium. So there are no days off, not really.
To be honest, if I had known I was autistic five years ago, I don’t think I would have gone into counselling. As much as I have previously argued that there is a need for counsellors who intimately understand neurodiversity, for me it is too much communication, too much stress, and I have begun to feel sick at the thought of another Monday coming around. Spending my days in delicate conversations also means I am severely limited in my ability to engage in the kind of communication that helps me keep my mental health stable – blogging, social media, meeting up with friends. I have very little energy left for these at the moment. But I can’t really bring myself to regret the choices I’ve made, because a) I was doing the best I could at the time, with the resources and knowledge I had, and b) being self employed has been wonderful for me in other ways. I had never held down a job for more than about a year before – now I’ve been working for five years, I have all sorts of useful contacts, I’ve used my business to improve my quality of life, and to fund my studies, which have opened many doors. And even though I can see that this isn’t a viable way for me to spend the rest of my working life, counselling has been a privilege. I am constantly blown away by the tenacity and resilience of the people I have worked with, and honoured by the trust they place in me by allowing me into their pain and vulnerability. I rage at the world when they are hurt, and I celebrate their victories. I am not alien when I am with my clients; we have in common the bizarre circumstance of being tiny pieces of the universe that have somehow become conscious of themselves, and the questions that raises echo throughout our work together. In most other workplaces and social situations people strive to forget how strange and fragile they are. If it wasn’t so exhausting, I could be happy with the honesty and value of this work, and I will miss it when I do move on.
Until then, I just have to keep going – one conversation at a time.