Questioning my neurotypicality

If this feels like déjà vu to you, it’s probably because you’re on Twitter and not because of a glitch in the Matrix: most of this post has already appeared in slightly less organised and slightly less elaborated form in a couple of rambling Twitter threads: one I wrote late on Wednesday night, and one I wrote the following morning. I’ve eliminated a couple of side shoots, as they aren’t really pertinent.

In the past couple of years, I’ve started sharing a lot more personal stuff on Twitter, and on this blog. I probably now have a tendency to overshare – but I’d like to think some of my oversharing is useful to others. I wrote on Twitter that I hoped no future employer would read my tweets. In listing (some of) my ‘defects’, it was as though I were putting together an anti-CV. But that was only a tongue-in-cheek comment: right now I don’t really have high expectations of being employed again.

Zoning out

I recently read a Twitter thread by Mia Steinberg on auditory processing disorder (APD). Earlier I had watched the #TakeTheMaskOff launch video by Lyric Holmans (the Neurodivergent Rebel), Kieran Rose (the Autistic Advocate), Sara Jane Harvey (Agony Autie) and Hannah Molesworth (Do I look autistic yet?). Both the Twitter thread and the YouTube video talked about zoning out in conversations – perhaps for different but overlapping reasons. This made me think about times when I zone out (which I hope isn’t always obvious!).

I’ve always found social situations awkward, with the awkwardness being especially pronounced in ‘noisy’ environments. For me, a couple of conversations going on at the same time counts as noisy – anything over that is really noisy. And it’s not about hearing. As far as I know, my hearing is typical for someone of my age. And it’s not age-related either: I’ve always found this difficult.

At a wedding reception last week, I found the relentless conversation round the table too much to cope with, and didn’t really take part at all. (There were additional factors, which I mentioned in Chinks of darkness.) After a while, I even resorted to looking at Twitter on my phone! That wasn’t intentional rudeness – though I am well aware it could have been perceived as such. I just needed to take a break, and looking at my phone for a bit felt like the easiest way out. (I don’t know what I’d have done before I had a mobile phone.)

Another example: I was out on Tuesday night with a group of people I don’t (yet) really know, for a monthly cinema outing – to see Mamma Mia! Here we go again (which I really enjoyed, but as I’ve said before, I don’t do film reviews!). Afterwards, we went for a drink in the adjoining bar – I was making an effort to expand my laughably named ‘social network’. (Not wanting alcohol, nor the pitiful excuse for ‘fresh’ orange juice that I’d had the previous time I was there, I drank two ill-advised late-night coffees.)

Nine of us sat around a couple of tables on the pavement outside. As usually seems to happen, I was caught between two conversations – by my nature, I think I form a natural conversation-barrier! – and I didn’t really feel able to contribute to either. I just smiled occasionally when I heard something interesting, and my attention flitted back and forth between the two groups.

At one point the group to my left had been talking about film genres and I had zoned out, not finding the topic particularly interesting. Then someone, perhaps noticing that I hadn’t spoken at all, asked me directly: what’s your favourite kind of film? I had no idea how to answer that question because I had been too busy half-listening (and taking time out from listening) to give it any thought. I never expected to suddenly be drawn in to the conversation like that.

(Actually, if I’d anticipated the question – for instance, in an ice-breaker scenario where we went round the circle telling everyone our name and favourite film genre – I’d have had better luck coming up with an answer, but the chances are that I wouldn’t have been able to pay attention to what anyone else said!)

Someone – I didn’t even notice if it was the same someone – kindly stuck up for me and said it was difficult to answer such a question without prior warning. But that made me feel a bit stupid, and I left soon afterwards (it was late anyway). Even now, I’m not sure if I could tell you my favourite film genre: it’s a pretty open-ended question, and I’d struggle to come up with more than two or three genres off the top of my head. If I’d been asked whether I preferred rom-coms or action films, that would have been much easier for me to answer. (Rom-coms, obviously. Despite their typical cishet assumptions.)

Even in one-to-one conversation, I frequently find myself embarrassingly unaware of what the other person has been saying, because I’ve still been processing what they were saying earlier (or taking a break to recoup my energy). If I’m quiet in such situations, it’s often because I take too long to think of a response (unless it’s a set piece I’ve rehearsed a hundred times before – in which case it’s my turn to soliloquise and bore my interlocutor). By the time I’ve worked out what to say, the conversation (or monologue, when there are only two of us) has often moved on, and my words of wisdom are no longer relevant. I probably didn’t really take in what was being said in the meantime either.

Anyway, whether it’s attributable to APD or autism or some other form of neurodiversity, zoning out is something I do all the time (but maybe everyone – or every introverted person – does it to some extent?).

It’s possible (my counsellor has suggested this) that my social awkwardness is (in part) because I spent 49 years hiding my true gender (masking it, if you like) and so never really learned how to interact naturally as myself. Some things are certainly becoming easier now.

But I don’t know if that’s the whole story.

Diagnosing myself

autistic pride
Autistic pride symbol

As a trans teenager, I had one particularly strong feeling that I thought no one else in the world had (so I was too ashamed to tell anyone). I had a lot of other feelings too, but it would be decades before I realised that many of those were trans feelings.

I am certainly trans – I know that now. But it took me a long time to work it out because it’s very hard for me to know what it would be like not to be trans. We all tend to default to thinking we’re just like everyone else when it comes to things like gender identity and sexuality. And it’s only really in open dialogue with people who are allosexual, cisgender or heterosexual that we can discover areas where we diverge from these societal norms. (As for my sexuality, I’m still questioning whether I’m on the ace spectrum and whether I’m strictly lesbian in terms of who I find attractive.) If there weren’t such strong societal norms, it wouldn’t be an issue.

I think it’s similar for neurodiversity. I may have worked out that I’m trans, but I’m still questioning how neurotypical I am. Am I on the autistic spectrum? Or am I otherwise neuro-atypical? In any case, just as in my quest for my true gender identity and sexuality, I’m rather late to the party. (But I suppose that’s OK, since I generally hate parties!)

My son is autistic and we share a number of traits. Partly because of that, since his diagnosis I’ve considered that I might also be autistic, but I do have trouble with the idea of diagnosing myself. How do autistic people know that the way they think is different from the way neurotypicals think?

You see, it’s natural for me – and I suppose it’s natural for everyone, isn’t it? – to assume that the way I think/feel about things is the way everyone else does. (It’s a bit like colour vision. How would you know if you were colourblind without some, possibly mediated, dialogue with people who have ‘normal’ colour vision?)

For instance, I talk about social anxiety to someone else, and they say, yes, they too experience that (or are also introverted or also shy).

Or I talk about my difficulties with chronology – relating events to dates in history; remembering when something happened in my own life (was it last month, or was it a couple of years ago?); or planning for the future – and they suggest that I just have a bad memory, or need to write things down.

Or I say that I find it really difficult to do things I’m not interested in – I have practically no means of self-motivation – and they say that everyone prefers to do things they enjoy, but you have to force yourself to do other stuff first (and then reward yourself!).

Or I talk about how I find thinking about my PhD so terrifying because it’s so open-ended and unstructured (unlike undergraduate courses, which I loved), and they say that everyone finds PhDs difficult (which is probably true).

Or I admit that I talk to myself (which I always have done, but have learned to suppress in most situations), and they say everyone does, sometimes.

Talking to myself

Actually, on that last point, I went on a speed-reading course at my university as part of my PhD training. It was fascinating, and by the end of it I was able to speed-read some simple passages (though not really with understanding). Anyway, the tutor said that to succeed it was important to suppress any subvocalisation (hearing words aloud in your head). He also made fun of any hypothetical people who might actually read out loud to themselves (making actual sounds). Not the kind of people who do PhDs, apparently. People like me.

Yes, I can read silently, but I much prefer not to. Even as I wrote the tweets this post is based on (each of which I read back to myself maybe 20 times), I spoke them out loud (or at least in a whisper). And I’m doing exactly the same thing now (maybe only reading each sentence an extra five or six times).

I would never read silently if it weren’t for other people being around.

That means I’m quite a slow reader (and a slow writer). It also means I read carefully and won’t miss out on sound patterns that have been put there deliberately by the writer. It makes me a good copy-editor too, I think. (My clients have appreciated my work anyway.)

When there isn’t anyone around (and sometimes even when there is!), I’ll chat, hum or sing away to myself. (This might be something everyone does – I just don’t know, because no one else admits it.) I’ll go over things that have happened or rehearse anticipated conversations. Does everyone do that? (I don’t know, because it’s not something people talk about. Whether that’s because they don’t do it, or because they’re ashamed because other people don’t talk about it, I don’t know.)

(Not) being diagnosed

If I’m not autistic (and have no other suitable label), then it seems to me that all my peculiarities, oddities and awkwardnesses are just part of who I am, and to some extent I’m just not particularly good at life. I have no community.

If I am autistic, how can I possibly know without someone else pointing it out to me?

Actually, my (soon-to-be-ex) wife has often pointed out things that my son and I have in common. We can both be very narrowly focused on one thing to the detriment of everything else and can fail to notice the passing of time. (It’s OK if that thing is something useful, but more often than not it isn’t!) We both avoid social situations and find it difficult to make friends. She even reckons the way I like to tap out rhythms on my body is akin to my son’s stereotypies: she calls it tappy-typies (!).

It was after my son’s (fairly late, early-teens) diagnosis that I decided I’d like to be assessed myself, partly because for the questions we, as parents, were asked about him, I’d have given the same or more extreme answers if they’d been asking about me.

I had to wait a few months for a pre-assessment. I didn’t know that’s what it was at the time – I thought it was going to be the same kind of assessment as my son had had. Unfortunately, though, there was no structure. I just had to tell them why I thought I might have ASD! As I wasn’t prepared, I think I left out lots of quite important things (some I realised afterwards, and possibly some I wouldn’t have thought of, because they just seem like ‘normal’ human behaviour to me).

So I was told that although I seemed to have some ‘autistic traits’, I didn’t have enough to warrant being referred for a full assessment. The assessor asked how I felt about that. Was I disappointed? I said no, I was fine with it. But I wasn’t really.

I was also told that, as a trans person, it was probably a good thing for me not to get an autism diagnosis, as that might cause the gender identity clinic to take me less seriously and could cause (even greater) delays to any medical or surgical interventions I might need. I don’t know how true that is.

So at the moment, I don’t know where my neuro-atypicality lies. I do know, though, that I have enjoyed following a number of autistic people who tweet and blog and make videos. I feel some kind of connection with them and am extremely grateful for their perspective.

One response to “Questioning my neurotypicality”

  1. I have long wondered the same about myself, my trans daughter, my mother, her sister, and my maternal grandfather. As far as i am aware, none of us has been diagnosed autistic. Only my daughter, as an adult, has mentioned the thought to me. Years earlier, when they were about 15, I did an online autism test on my own behalf and on theirs. I came out borderline. They were more definitively showing traits. I didn’t say anything to my daughter at the time because I don’t believe in pathologising something which is a diversity issue and not causing any distress, or suggesting to someone that they are ‘deficient’ in some respect.

    For myself, I would say I have learned appropriate behaviours over time and generaIly ‘pass’, now. But there have been significant difficulties along the way. Job interviews, parties and unstructured situations are all pretty bad for me and can go spectacularly wrong.

    All the best Anna – whether you pursue a diagnosis or not – you are definitely not a failure at life!