Autism is having a bit of a moment. You must have noticed – you can hardly turn on the television or look on a news site without hearing someone famous has been diagnosed or some new understanding has been reached. It wouldn’t be the first time the media have seized on a subject and run with it but I have a sneaking suspicion there’s a perfectly sensible reason for the sudden approved awareness of autism. There’s certainly a reason why I’m noticing it more, which I’ll get to in just a second.
The last two years have been hard ones. Waves have lead to lockdowns, separation from the normal hustle and bustle of life. In the midst of all this death and uncertainty, a lot of people have had a chance to reassess, to look inward. For those with mental health illnesses it has been particularly hard as the constant change and the sense of unreality that comes with living through a global event. There is no way of avoiding the news. I started lockdown, way back in March 2020 with the intention to ride the waves and keep safe. I read up everything I could on masks and pandemics, then baking and dyeing techniques, then sofas – did you know how many webbing patterns there are for Ercol Windsor sofas? That is always how I have approached life, I research, I become an expert on tiny sections of things which stay lodged in my brain for years to come. The pandemic made me go into overdrive.
But as the months dragged on I started to think more. I started to realise that my reaction to staying at home all the time, to having control over the people I saw, the places I went, being able to cocoon myself in comfort when I felt anxious, to be childishly indulgent if the mood arose. It was only earlier this year I realised that all these little things, My geekiness, and antisocial tendencies, my weird tastes (when I like a food I will quite happily live on it for a prolonged period), the almost fetishisation of certain combinations of colours and textures and the tendency to almost instantly want to make friends might actually all be part of the same thing. For the first time in my life the collection of quirks and twitches, strengths and weaknesses that go to make up me looked like they actually had a shape together and a name. A few weeks ago, I was given that shape, named that name. I am autistic.
A few short months ago if you had asked me about autism I would have pictured a little boy lost in a world of his own. I had assumed that autism, like ADHD was a childhood condition. When I was a kid autism was quite simply not something little girls could have…a bit like Scalextric and Meccano. Even if I had been tested for it back in the days when Jimmy Saville and Rolf Harris did children’s programmes and Liberace was the housewife’s favourite, I wouldn’t have been diagnosed as I don’t fit the diagnosis – I’m chatty and have been known to run into the centre of crowds. People often mistake me for an extrovert. I would never have fitted the diagnostic parameters. But science evolves and learns new things and is currently very interested in learning about women who were missed when they were children. It’s very common for women to be diagnosed as adults because, not only did we not fit the profile, we are also a lot better at “masking”.
All my life I’ve treated fashion as a costume. I dress as the person I need to be at any given moment. I have outfits that are my journalist outfits, other ones for when I’m teaching and if I’m doing something as a writer then it’s a different costume again. All this, I learn now, is masking. It’s why I feel all peopled out if I’d had a particularly social whirl (or met more than three people at once, to be honest). I’m happiest at home with time to think. My brain sometimes gets jammed with everything and just needs to be quiet to filter everything out. When I’m calm and have space I can think the world, but when the noise gets to much and chaos crowds in, it feels like a limiter has been placed on my brain and I simply can’t function.
I’ve heard autism diagnosis being described as “finding your tribe”, “finding out what planet you are from”. For me it has been a Kaiser Soze moment where everything fell into place and it keeps falling into place to this day. It’s not something that changes who I am but it sure as hell explains a lot. My brain isn’t weird or wrong in anyway, it’s just wired differently. It means that some of my senses are up to 11. It means that some things I just don’t get – I’m utterly rubbish at reading certain social cues. It means that when I get tired and overwhelmed I just need to stop. Most of this is just stuff that is intrinsically me so it’s been odd realising that actually it’s part of a state of being. I hadn’t actually realised that most people don’t experience the world the way I do (although, really I should have taken the hints a very long time ago).
I’m currently waiting to find out if I also have ADHD, a combination that isn’t that unusual but that would explain a great deal about how I work, and why I’ve struggled with certain things. All of this also goes some way to explain why I’m writing this this evening. I have always found it easier to write about emotions than to demonstrate them. This is a big enough thing about myself that I want to tell everyone – not just those who’ve supported me and been my friends but also those who didn’t give me a break for things I know now I had no control over. I feel like shouting it from the rooftops. I am explained!
Of course, it’s not as simple as that. This knowledge is simply good to have. It allows me to understand myself better but it is not the whole story. For the first time in a very long time I feel like a whole person. I no longer feel fractured but a complex, complete entity. It was a strange thing to find out as a result of lockdown but there you go. And perhaps that’s also why autism is having a moment right now.