Interacting Autistically

For the past few years I’ve been seeing a private psychiatrist who has helped me a lot with my anxiety, depression and trauma. I’ve left university now, and been kicked out of the university’s social group for Autistic students, and all the similar groups I can go to are patronising, pathologising and difficult for me to access. Me and the psychiatrist both agree that the main thing contributing to my depression at the moment is my isolation and loneliness.

I’ve given up on achieving the necessary amount of meaningful human interaction at groups for Autistic people, and started looking for groups aimed at neurotypicals. (Of course these groups don’t say they’re specially aimed at NTs, but I think in practice they usually are.) I’ve found a birdwatching group that runs regular talks that have an interval where people chat over cups of tea. At the first one I went to, someone approached me and talked to me because I was new. The room was noisy and distracting, so I forgot to look at her, and I think she misinterpreted it as meaning I didn’t want to talk to her. I find it hard to know what to say in those situations, and in general I’m bad at human interaction and relationships.

My psychiatrist said I should try to learn conversation skills from books – there are social skills books aimed at NTs, as well as at Autistic people. I said I was worried those books would teach me to behave like an NT, and I wanted to interact Autistically, but I couldn’t explain what I meant by that. He said I needed to learn social skills if I was going to make friends and that refusing to do it was like moving to France and refusing to learn French.

I don’t think that analogy is right though. My situation is more like being a native speaker of a language that’s been suppressed, like Welsh or British Sign Language, and growing up being bullied and punished for using your native language. You’re told you have to learn English, the language of the people who mistreated you, if you’re going to have relationships. But you’re incapable of becoming fluent in English – you make a lot of mistakes when you speak it, you can only understand part of what people say to you, and you manage by parroting phrases you’ve learned but don’t fully understand.

I know I need to better understand and use neurotypical communication, but I want people to try to understand my language as well. I also see a difference between passing skills that help me avoid discrimination and smooth over interactions with NTs I don’t want deep relationships with; and social skills that help me have meaningful relationships as an Autistic person. I want to learn both sets of skills.

It’s probably inherent to the field of psychiatry that the aim is to fix people’s brains and bring them closer to being NT. That approach works for my actual brain problems like depression, but not for difficulties caused by being Autistic.

The psychiatrist thinks I’m being stubborn. But I like my stubbornness. I think it’s helped me get through times when everyone else thought they knew what was best for me, even though I understand myself better than anyone.

I think my concept of ‘interacting Autistically’ comes from Jim Sinclair. In their article about how they founded the first Autistic community, Sinclair wrote about Autistic people connecting with each other using the things they’re passionate about, and interacting by stimming together.

This is what I mean by incinerating Autistically:

  • Sharing information about things we’re interested in
  • Sharing our stims
  • Using and accepting atypical body language, and trying to get to know other people’s body language
  • Being literal and saying what we mean, and/or communicating through echolalia
  • Typing to communicate – online and/or in person

Even though I’m Autistic, not all of these things come naturally to me. And I know most people aren’t going to interact with me like this all the time. But I want to try to learn, and to find people who’ll accept me and my communication style. The problem is  I don’t know how to learn.


Note: I don’t know the correct pronouns for Jim Sinclair. I used singular they in this post, but I’ll correct it if I find out the right pronouns.

My thoughts on #AutismSpeaks10

(Trigger warnings: ableism, eugenics, murder, abuse, torture, ABA, bullying)

Autistic people have been criticising the American non-profit organisation Autism Speaks for years, while they ignore us and actively try to silence us. For people who are unfamiliar with Autism Speaks, here is a summary of what it does wrong:

Continue reading

All Cats Have Asperger Syndrome and being an aspie woman

[Image description: the cover of All Cats Have Asperger Syndrome, which features a grey tabby kitten with an open mouth. A sticker indicates that the book was shortlisted by the Children’s Book Council of Australia.]

[Image description: the cover of All Cats Have Asperger Syndrome, which features a grey tabby kitten with an open mouth. A sticker indicates that the book was shortlisted by the Children’s Book Council of Australia.]

In conversations about Autistic people and our frequent love of cats, people often mention the book All Cats Have Asperger Syndrome by Kathy Hoopmann. It’s a children’s book that puts information about Asperger’s syndrome next to photos of cats that vaguely relate to the text. This is presumably to bring out the similarities between aspies and cats, like our love of routine, sensitive hearing and avoidance of eye contact. I think it’s a great idea, but I hated it because of the pronouns.

All Cats Have Asperger Syndrome refers to Aspergian people using only masculine pronouns (he/him/his). I’ve read a lot of books that always use masculine pronouns to refer to people whose gender is arbitrary, and I find this sexist and unpleasant, but it’s never put me off completely like it did with All Cats. But in the context of Autism, gender is a big deal for me.

I was twenty when it was first suggested that I might be Aspergian, and at first I thought it was ridiculous, because I was nothing like what I thought Asperger’s was. Then when I started reading about it I realised that Asperger’s would explain a lot of the things I thought were uniquely wrong with me, like my highly sensitive hearing and literal understanding of language. But I also read descriptions that I didn’t relate to at all, like the idea of a ‘little professor’ who is obsessed with computers or public transport and who doesn’t understand pretend games.

As I waited for my NHS Asperger’s assessment I was desperate to know if I had found the explanation for why I felt so different from everyone else, and for the things I had always thought were wrong with me. I built myself up for the day when I’d finally know the answer. The appointment was a few weeks before I was due to start university and I was glad that my diagnosis would come in time for me to get extra support.

But the psychiatrist decided that although I met most of the criteria for Asperger’s, she thought my intense interests in cats and fiction were normal, so I didn’t meet the narrow interest criterion. She said she couldn’t tell whether I had Asperger’s or not, and that I’d need to have another assessment with someone else. But she didn’t know how long I’d have to wait or even whether the assessment would be funded. I was distraught.

But I was lucky. My parents found a psychologist who specialised in diagnosing Aspergian girls and women, and paid for me to have a private assessment just before I started university.

Around that time I learned that the Aspergian traits of girls and women often appear different from those of boys and men, and that the way most nonautistic people understand and write about Asperger’s is based on how it appears in boys only. It’s not just me this affects; so many Autistic women have stories of missing a diagnosis in childhood, of having to fight to get one, of having multiple misdiagnoses.

Eventually I found a list of Aspergian traits specific to women and felt so relieved to learn that other people like me existed and to see our existence recognised. I learned that although the special interests of Autistic boys tend to be focused on things other people see as weird, Autistic girls often have unusually intense interests in topics other girls find interesting– things like animals and literature.

It was painful growing up not knowing there was anyone else like me, and believing there was something terribly wrong with me. And it was painful going through a failed assessment, to get my hopes up and share personal information with a stranger so I could get an answer that never came. I knew these experiences were likely related to my gender. My mum bought me All Cats Have Asperger Syndrome right after I got my diagnosis, when the pain was still raw. So I couldn’t bear to see another example of Autistic women being ignored and left out.

Fragile mind

(Trigger warning: mention of self-harm)

I started university three years ago with mental health problems and various psychological issues that made life difficult. I had extremely low self-esteem and I was convinced that every piece of work I produced was terrible. I was frightened of authority figures, including the tutors, and being on the campus made me anxious. I decided that given my social difficulties in the past it was best to avoid the other students as much as possible.

Continue reading

Glimpses of unseen autism

Looking through some family photos I found one of me as a little girl, smiling as I created two lines of plastic animals. Lining up toys is one of those famous signs of autism, but I doubt my parents knew that. The ways I’m autistic are subtle and easy to dismiss, but I’ve realised that the signs were always there for me, even if nobody recognised them.

At school, when I was ten, I wanted to do my project on cheetahs but the teacher told me I should do it on the Botanical Gardens because I went there most weekends. Whenever our task was to write about what we did at the weekend I would wrote about going to the Botanics for a few hours to feed the squirrels. I didn’t write that in the rest of my free time I was reading about cheetahs and other cats, pretending to be a cat, and sitting by the radiator to watch my own cat. These things were unremarkable and not worth mentioning. I’d been doing them every day for as long as I could remember.

Another thing I’d always done was spinning. I became an expert at pushing with the balls of my feet to spin on my heels as fast as I could go. I’d hold out my arms to feel the tugging at my fingertips, or pull my arms across my chest against the force pulling them outwards. When I wasn’t spinning my hands never stopped moving. I squeezed my fingers, rolled up the edge of my t-shirt, and fiddled with my hair till it got tangled so often my mum told the hairdresser to cut my hair short like a boy’s to make me break the habit. But I also picked at my fingers, my lips, and the rest of my face.

I slept badly most of the time and none of the advice I was given helped much. In the evening the radio and my parents’ voices kept me awake and I was woken early in the morning by the sound of the central heating coming on. The sound of my brother bouncing a ball in the garden messed with my brain in ways I didn’t understand, but my parents said it was doing no harm. In the school playground it sounded like every child was screaming.

I was scared of the children and terrified of the teachers and did everything I could to avoid making them angry. But at home my frustration and anxiety surfaced. I acted out and melted down. The psychologist said I was fine, and put me on a reward system that fixed my behaviour but did nothing for my emotions.

I always had friends at school but nobody else saw the teasing. But being teased was better than being alone and risking worse bullying or other children’s pity. I was desperate to make other friends but I couldn’t manage it. When I could bring myself to admit this I was told it was due to my low self-esteem. My best friends were my cats.

I was shy. ‘She’s very shy’ was the explanation for every failed attempt at social interaction.

Home and school made a predictable routine that I was rarely forced out of.

I did my best to be a normal girl so people would like me and so they wouldn’t see the ways I was different from everyone I knew.

Normal girls from my background went away to university, but once I was there I couldn’t pretend any more. I couldn’t cope with bars and clubs, or understand other students’ social interactions, and without my family or school friends I was more alone than I’d ever been. The noise in my flat gave me panic attacks and depression took away the energy I used to act normal and compensate for everything that assaulted my senses.

I had to drop out, but a year later the GP treating my depression noticed my autisticness. Once I’d got over my disbelief I realised, this explains everything.

I’ve felt sad and angry that I wasn’t diagnosed as a child and had no support and no understanding of who I was. But I wonder now if support at that time would have meant being made to appear even more normal and my understanding would have been that I was disordered. Now I’m an adult I can choose not to accept these things.

But it’s comforting to look back and understand my life in the light of autism, and to see that autism has always been a part of me, because it feels like I know who I really am.

This is my post for Autistics Speaking Day 2014.