Success Fail!

I read an article the other day. Nothing spectacular, not one to which I was ever intending to pay significant attention, and not one that I sought out – it just appeared in my facebook feed and I was sufficiently intrigued to click through and see what it said.

It was entitled something like “How to be Successful”, and was a list of the things you should do in the workplace in order to achieve success and be perceived as honest, open, secure, confident, and so on. I immediately disliked the article, very very much. It was a classic example of “ableism” and discrimination against the neurodiverse, and it made me cross enough to save it to refer to so that I could write a blog post about it.

I have long known that I could never work in any sort of “business” scenario. The closest I ever got was an administration job for a business project attached to an academic institution. I lasted a month. The tears and trauma of putting on the suit every morning were substantial, and I felt my confidence seeping away day by day as I was evidently unable to do the job that I had been hired to do. At the time I thought they were simply impossible people (that may have been true), but the reality of the situation was probably that I was never going to be able to cope in such an environment. If the list below is anything to go by, then it’s now glaringly obvious why I’ve been such a failure in the world of that sort of work (obviously, this is one perspective on one type of work, in one type of environment – this is a blog post, not a thesis attempting to cover all eventualities, and only provides a snapshot of one particular aspect of success in the workplace).

I learnt from the article that to achieve this “success” I should: sit up straight, use gestures correctly, open my arms, not touch my hair, smile, make appropriate eye contact, and give firm handshakes!

Wow!

And I’m expected to do all that while wearing clothes that hurt me, and knowing by magic when to offer to make tea, and being comfortable with working as a team, possibly in an office with lots of office machinery making a lot of noise and fluorescent lighting overhead, and so on…

It’s no wonder I failed.

If I consider each of these criteria for success one by one then I come to the following conclusions about my ability to meet them.

I can sit up reasonably straight for a short period of time, but I find sitting on a chair “normally” extremely uncomfortable – given the choice I always sit with my legs folded under me, and always have. I imagine this is because the pressure is reassuring and helps balance my errant sensory system. If I have to sit on an ordinary chair in the ordinary manner for any length of time I start to feel stressed and sick. My legs will jiggle (involuntarily), and I will run out of energy very very fast.

I received my draft report from my autism assessment the other day (it will be completed after the next meeting). The assessor observed that I can use gestures, but that my range of gestures and facial expressions is much narrower than would be expected and that my gestures are formulaic and learnt. This is me, with 40 years practice and learning – and I still don’t make gestures or facial expressions like most people are able to.

I should open my arms. Like sitting on a chair, I can do that for a very limited time, but it feels forced and unnatural. My natural inclination is to draw my arms in towards me, to bend my elbows upwards, and to clasp my hands together. Sitting with arms open for any length of time feels contrived and uncomfortable, and, also, dishonest, because it feels so clearly like acting. Apparently having closed arms means I disagree with what someone is saying to me – I disagree most strongly with that assumption!

Apparently touching my hair shows a lack of attention!!! Since hair twirling is one of my biggest lifelong stims, it’s actually something that helps me to pay attention. And, moreover, it’s probably one of the more socially acceptable stims – if they don’t want me to touch my hair would they rather I played with a toy or flapped my hands? Maybe I could substitute the hair twirling for rocking and biting my fingers? I suspect that wouldn’t be acceptable either, but any of the above would actually HELP me to pay attention!

Smiling at the right time in the right place is apparently also good if you want to achieve success. How on Earth you’re meant to know what is the right time and the right place to smile I don’t know, and that’s before you have to remember to do it. I refer back to the assessment report that noted my limited range of facial expressions. This smiling business is rather hard work!

And, of course, there’s the inevitable mention of eye contact. If I make eye contact for too long with people I am, apparently, insecure, but if I don’t make eye contact enough then it’s because I have something to hide. And someone like me, who struggles to make any real eye contact with anybody at all just reads this stuff with blank incomprehension. How do I figure any of this out? What do I do?

The last of these pieces of “advice” is probably the only one I could actually follow. I am perfectly capable of giving a good firm handshake. Though I fear that by the time I’d sat up straight with my arms open trying not to touch anything and to work out what gestures and smiles and eye contact to use I’d have such shaky sweaty hands that even my handshake would fail the “business success” test!

***

Yes, this was just some bonkers article off the internet. Yes, I’m being slightly facetious here (but only slightly). Yes, it’s not typical of all workplaces and I’m sure there are some fabulously inclusive disability aware places with people who don’t judge on any of the above. Yes, I’m sure that sort of workplace is not suitable for everyone, autistic or otherwise. I’m trying to avoid a barrage of “but it’s not really like that” comments because I’m aware that all I’m actually doing here is giving a personal response to an article I saw by accident on the internet.

BUT, the very fact that such an article exists indicates that there are people out there who are still equating the things above with “success”. There is no mention anywhere in the article about the person’s ability to DO THE JOB. It’s all window dressing. It’s all superficial. And on some level it must be true – that those things matter to some people, and if they are the things on which they judge potential colleagues or associates, then autistic people are really going to struggle. We’re at a massive disadvantage – and possibly most massively disadvantaged in the world of work at the “higher powered higher earning” end of the market.

I am not in a position to get any such job, and never was. My business acumen is zero, my ability to cope with working in such an environment lasts for a few hours at most these days. I have never aspired to such a career, but maybe there are autistic people out there who would like to work in such an environment and do have exceptional business skills, but who are judged by their ability to sit “correctly” or do appropriate things with their hands, and their skills will be ignored. That makes me sad.

And, if being able to do the seven things listed above is what enables one to be “successful” then I am destined for “failure” because I have a condition that means I cannot perform those tasks “properly” even with massive effort and 40 years practice. I am DOOMED!!!! (Not really, that last bit was sarcastic)!

And the real irony is that I am actually honest, open, and even, at times, can be secure and confident. But because I have a communication disability, some others might have problems perceiving that. Which is sad!

To reiterate – I was definitely cross about the article being quite so ridiculously ableist and I do think there are some massively serious points to be drawn from it when compared to the skills of an autistic person. However, I am old enough and ugly enough also to laugh at such an article, and to say “What a load of rubbish!” My reaction of “Well, I’m an automatic fail then!” wasn’t one of despair, but of sarcastic amusement and a gentle “Fuck you, because you really are clueless about what it’s like to live my life!” to the author of the article and all such articles!

I say this because my husband once wrote a post about how he tripped over a hillock while out running – he’d intended it as a funny story but got a huge number of concerned comments about how sorry people were that he was injured when he wasn’t really injured at all, just recounting an amusing event!

If anyone is still reading at this point and has understood any of this blog post then I congratulate you wholeheartedly! Reward yourself with a cup of tea! I’m off to sit on my feet with my arms crossed, and play with my hair while wearing a blank expression – and I won’t be shaking your hand because I’ll also be holding a cup of tea!

Maybe a Poem…

I was never
A poet.

Aside from:

School creations

And a few rhyming ditties,
Lost
When an old blog server
Closed
And an old computer
Ceased
To function.

Yet,
Since last year,
Since I discovered
I was autistic
And everything
Changed…

Sometimes
Brief
And structured
Words
Have become
The way
That thoughts
Emerge
From my mind.

They are sometimes
More accessible
Than
Crafted prose.
When the machinery
In my head
Is operating
A slow
Translation service…

From
Thoughts…
To
Words.

I don’t even know
If they are poems
Or not.

They are what they are.

And they say what they need
To say.

Apparently
It is World Poetry Day
Today.

And for the first time
I wrote something
That might,
Or might not,
Be a poem.

Talking About It

I described, in Strategy Deployment, how I had dinner in College a few nights ago. The routines and protocols of such dinners are generally well-known to me, and one of those routines is a loose convention that you tend to chat to one of your neighbours during the first course of dinner and another during the second. It’s not a hard and fast “rule”, and who you actually end up chatting to depends a bit upon circumstances, but you can reasonably expect to talk to at least two people during the course of the meal.

On one side of me I had my best friend, who knows everything about what’s been going on in my life over the last eight months. He and I chatted, initially, across the table (we were on a corner) to his other neighbour. My main memory of that conversation was that we discussed the renovation of a pianola, owned by this other person – for me a nice, easy, safe topic of conversation, music and mechanics combined. No problem!

On my other side was another person I know reasonably well, a former tutor of mine from nearly 30 years ago, who I last saw at a dinner in 2013. As the main course arrived, he turned to me and first apologised for ignoring me during the starter (he’d been catching up with his other neighbour), as appropriate, and then he asked me, predictably, what I was doing these days.

There had already been a slight mention of the fact that we’d sat right on the end of the table, in the corner, when we first sat down. My best friend had explained that “there was a reason” we’d chosen those particular seats, and the fact that I was wearing dark glasses gave another clue that things were not “entirely regular”.

So, at the moment the question about “what I was doing these days” was asked, I had a choice. I could either (a) try my hardest to come up with some sort of conversation that made some sort of sense and would be adequate for the occasion, (b) ramble on a bit about “life being interesting” and “a few sensory issues” (to explain the dark glasses), or (c) just give the whole “I just got diagnosed autistic” speech!

A couple of months ago, when I went Out to Dinner, I was pre-diagnosis, and just being out of the flat at any social occasion at all was a huge thing for me. That evening, there were a couple of people there who knew what was going on in my life (one was my best friend, and another is friends on facebook and reads some of these blog posts), but a third friend didn’t know, and, two months ago I wasn’t ready to tell him, in person, by speaking. On that occasion I opted for option (b) and then e-mailed him after the event, sending him the link to this blog to explain more fully.

A month later, just before diagnosis, I was at an orchestra rehearsal, and wanted to explain to another non-facebook friend, what was going on. I managed, just, to get the words out, but was shaking and terrified, even though I knew that she was the sort of person who would be absolutely understanding and, like everyone I’ve so far told, she reacted by saying “Yes, of COURSE, that makes so much sense.” However, being able to articulate, in words, out in the big wide world, to other people who didn’t already know, that I was autistic, was still, at that point, seriously difficult.

Those of you who have been reading this blog since its inception must be wondering how this can possibly be. I’ve now been writing about being autistic, in as much detail as I can persuade my head to produce, for months. Yet just one month ago I could hardly form the spoken words to describe what was going on and two months ago I couldn’t do it at all. Of course, what might or might not have been evident from the early posts of this blog was the absolute fear when I posted The Discovery as to how my news might be received, especially as I was taking a huge gamble by disclosing after the disaster of my first assessment, as described in Too Articulate and Too Complicated. At that point I decided to disclose anyway since I couldn’t work out how to carry on living without doing so, and I got to the point where I’d decided that the risk of losing what remaining social life I had was probably worth taking in order to stop the feelings of no longer wanting to exist. But it wasn’t easy.

However, the blog moved on, the response has actually been amazing, and I’m now typing stuff about being autistic into one of my various devices on pretty much a daily basis.

But I still hadn’t reached the point where I could TALK about it to people who didn’t already know by reading the blog – at least not without almost falling apart on the spot and wishing the ground would swallow me up there and then and never spit me out ever again.

So, now returning to the point at which my former tutor turned to me and asked me “what I was doing these days”, what did I do?

I started with a couple of sentences reminding him that there was a “reason” I was sitting on this side of the table, I mentioned the dark glasses, and then I finally got to the point where I went for option (c) on my list above.

I’m certain I talked too much, and probably didn’t obey the proper rules of back and forth conversation. I also couldn’t quite multitask and eat my dinner at the same time. And my “I’m recently diagnosed autistic and this is how it came about and so on and so on and so on…” script is still very much in its embryonic stage (part of what I’m doing when I write these blog posts is teaching myself how to talk about it, part of what I’m doing when I read other blog posts and articles and books is giving myself the vocabulary to be able to talk about it, and starting to form my own ideas and where I fit in to the autistic world and how being autistic affects my life).

But, for the first time, I told someone who didn’t already know, and managed to do it without falling to pieces and shaking so much that I nearly dropped my drink, or starting to feel my speech fragment, and was able to have some discussion about it.

Admittedly, for me, dinner in College, at a place that has now been familiar to me for the best part of 30 years, feels like a safe environment. I’m lucky to be able to return to the social world, gently, in such a place, following familiar routines, and knowing that the people around me are likely to be sympathetic, and, on the whole, interested. So it was a good place to start.

However, I think the other thing that really helped was the confidence I have gained since I was formally diagnosed. I don’t think I could have had that conversation at this stage without that extra confidence.

But, whatever the circumstances, and whatever the reasons, it was the first time that I had been able to sensibly discuss being autistic with someone who didn’t already know. It was the beginning of being able to talk about it to other people – actual talking, not typing on a blog post, which is very different. I have known since the “autism hypothesis” formed, right back in August 2016, that if the hypothesis turned out to be true then I would need to find ways of talking about it, and I would need to construct scripts and work out how to explain to people (maybe, even in the fullness of time, be able to educate and inform and advocate, who knows). I’m not fully there yet, but I’m a huge step nearer than I was this time last week!

One Month On

I have how had my official autism diagnosis for a month. In that month, life has continued to change almost as rapidly as it did before I was diagnosed. My father’s cancer diagnosis has obviously changed my priorities with regard to how I spend my limited energy over the coming months. My financial situation has once more become difficult and precarious and is causing me considerable amounts of anxiety. And I have, with huge regret, realised that I cannot, at this time, continue with the maths degree that I so badly wanted to finish, so it is time to let go, to stop pushing, and to admit that I have simply run out of time and energy.

Obviously, life is still a long way from where I’d like it to be. My sleep patterns are still poor, which is not great, but they’re better than they were a few months ago. I’m now managing to leave the flat around twice a week, which is a slight improvement. When I do go out I am slightly better able to cope because I am more aware of which strategies work for me and I’m learning to give myself more recovery time afterwards.

I have now started, very slowly, to eat just a little better than I have been doing, which is no bad thing, since I saw a full-length photo of myself recently and was slightly shocked at how thin I looked. I finally weighed myself a couple of days ago and discovered that I’ve lost a stone since last summer, simply because I have felt too sick and anxious to cope with food. This is not good – I was not trying to lose weight, particularly not in that way, and I am just lucky that I was in good enough physical condition to start with that my body could cope. I am also still drinking too much alcohol in order to cope, but am starting to try to cut down just a bit in order not to do too much more damage to my physical health.

However, despite all the difficulties mentioned above, the persistent insomnia, the struggles to go out, and the continuing dysfunctional relationship with both food and alcohol, there are signs that things are improving. My husband and several friends have remarked that they perceive my underlying mental state to be improved and, even though I’m still getting some extremely sad, angry, and regretful moments, I’m starting to accept things as they are in a way that I didn’t before my formal diagnosis.

There were several people who said, before my diagnosis, that since I knew I was autistic, they knew I was autistic, and my friends and family accepted that I was autistic, there really wasn’t any necessity for me to pursue a formal diagnosis in order to understand myself. What none of these people understood, however, was my need for validation, reassurance that I hadn’t simply imagined the whole thing, and the huge huge confidence that the formal diagnosis has given me. This might not be necessary for everyone, but for me it was essential. And it really has made a massive difference to my life.

The formal diagnosis also, for me, marked the end of the old life, and the beginning of the new one. The process of discovery in the preceding months was like a sort of introduction, perhaps an overture before the curtain was raised at the beginning of the first act, or maybe the preface before the start of chapter one. My old life has been demolished, and now the process of rebuilding can begin.

There is obviously a lot of relief that the process of seeking a diagnosis is now over, and I feel, even more than previously, that my life now makes sense in a way that it never previously did. As I predicted in the last few paragraphs of Why Bother, the diagnosis has finally given me full permission to stop regarding myself as a naughty, lazy, failure of a human being. I also feel liberated from the pressure to “succeed” that has pervaded my whole life so far. There is still a long way to go and I still, frequently, feel that I am not entitled to breathe the air and that the world would be a better place without me, but I am still only a month into the new life, and there’s nearly half a century of the old one to analyse, reevaluate, and reframe.

Furthermore, I have to go through the process of mourning the life I might have had if only it had been recognised that I was autistic before I got to my mid 40s. There are still difficult topics to tackle – the mental health professionals who failed for two decades to recognise it, my childhood, the incessant, triggering, references to small children when I try to research autistic traits, and where I fit, if at all, into the autistic community (I am used to being alone and to shying away from being part of any sort of group, and discovering that there are others who experience so many of the same things as I do is, for me, somewhat disconcerting).

But one month after diagnosis there is a calm, even more so than that I felt after discovery. I strongly believe that there is a very good chance that my mental health will, eventually, be better than it has been for decades, possibly even than ever before. I am already, after just four weeks, much more confident about describing myself as autistic, and feeling that I have a right to do so. I’m also treating myself much more gently than I did previously – because now I have official permission!

I’m certain there will be yet more phases to go through, and not all will be easy, but maybe, just maybe, I will eventually rebuild a life that works. And it will be a better life than the one that officially ended four weeks ago.

Very Very Tired

Imagine…

You ran a marathon yesterday
Or had a big meeting at work
Or took a difficult exam
Or moved house
Or finished a huge assignment
Or travelled a long long way
Or dealt with a family emergency
Or been to a large all night party

Or something else similar…

These are big things.

You might expect
To be
Very
Very
Tired.

And today you would need to rest.

In my autistic world
I know that if…

I went out of my flat yesterday
Or spoke to several people
Or had to sit still for a while
Or encountered harsh lighting
Or chatted for a few hours
Or had to wear particular clothes
Or sent a few e-mails
Or gone for lunch with friends

Or something else similar…

These would be big things.

I would expect
To be
Very
Very
Tired.

And today I would need to rest.

For years
People have asked me
“Why are you so tired?”
“What have you been doing?”

Until I knew I was autistic
I could only say
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t understand.”

I was just as baffled
As everyone else!

I know now
That
For me
As an autistic person

The cause of this
Utter
Debilitating
Exhaustion

Is simply
Existing.

Existing in a world
Where people communicate
Constantly
By talking.
Instinctive to many
But an effort for me.

Existing in a world
Where the input to my brain
From my senses
Is massive
And overloads my system
Until I can no longer cope.

Existing in a world
Where people sit on chairs
And care about appearances
And follow secret rules
That nobody told me.

It takes a lot of effort!

Strategy Deployment

Yesterday I went out again, to something social, where I met quite a lot of people, and where I was out of the house for quite a lot of hours. I went to an afternoon symposium, a series of lectures, then to dinner, once again in my old college.

I employed similar planning strategies to those described in Out to Dinner: a couple of days’ rest beforehand, comfortable clothes, stim toys, dark glasses, and plans for an easy couple of days afterwards so I knew that I could take my energy levels into the red zone if necessary because once I was home I didn’t have to do anything at all except breathe (and that’s something that usually happens without my having to think about it).

Additionally I took some attenuating ear plugs (originally bought for potential use in noisy orchestras and recently discovered in a pile of stuff) and my recently acquired ear defenders, just in case I found a way that I could usefully use them.

It was an interesting afternoon and evening in many ways. It was interesting in the ordinary way in that I learnt some stuff from each of the lectures. I also saw several people I hadn’t seen for a few years, and some others I’ve seen more recently, and it was good to catch up with them. And, of course, it provided me with an opportunity to continue analyzing what I can cope with when I’m out in the world, and what I can’t.

Apart from the dark glasses and slightly more casual clothes than was the norm, the first thing that might have been described as slightly out of the ordinary behaviour was the way I sat during the lectures. I took my boots off and sat with my feet tucked under me, my legs up close to my body, in various formations throughout the afternoon. I nearly always sit, by choice, in some variant of this position.

Very interestingly, I went to a similar symposium in that very same lecture theatre a couple of years ago. I remembered sitting in exactly the same way. I wasn’t wearing dark glasses, but my clothes were still slightly more casual and I sat with my feet tucked up under me in the same way. And that was years before I knew anything about autism, about the beneficial effects of “pressure stimming” (I still have a whole blog post to write about that stuff sometime), and before I realized that I was doing something, perhaps a bit socially out of the ordinary, because that was something that my body needed to do in order to feel OK.

(As an aside, I made no other adaptions on that occasion a few years ago – and I remember it being one of the nights that I woke up in the small hours afterwards feeling sick, shaky and very very wrong – that was always the norm for me after such events. Now things are changing.)

My first real break with “doing what everyone else was doing” was at the tea break between sessions. I used the strategy that I’m now getting used to during the breaks of orchestral rehearsals – get myself a cup of tea then get out of the room with the voices and the noise and the crowds of people as quickly as possible. I went to stand outside in the quadrangle. I was joined by a friend (the one mentioned in the first sentence of Out to Dinner), who gave me a biscuit (a good idea, since I hadn’t yet managed to eat) and asked whether I was OK with him being there or whether I needed to be alone. Since I’m comfortable with him and he knows what’s going on in my life I was happy for him to stay. It wasn’t difficult out in the cool air away from the artificial lights and the noise of too many voices.

When we went back for the second session I knew that my senses were already beginning to tire as the sounds of the voices of those speaking seemed much much louder than they had done during the first session. I decided to try the earplugs. They helped. And not only did they help with reducing the volume of the speaker’s voice to a manageable level, but they really really helped with one of the most painful noises of all – applause. I’m now trying to work out whether there’s any way I can use them in concerts, because applause is a sound that I’ve always found, at best, unpleasant, and at worst, really very painful.

I also felt perfectly justified in wearing something in my ears to alter my hearing perception because there were several in the audience also wearing things in their ears – though they were trying to enhance their hearing and I was trying to reduce mine!

Interestingly, I also looked round to see what other people were doing in terms of stimming. I noticed someone rubbing their hands, someone playing with a pen, and someone jiggling their legs and playing with the hem of their trousers! I’m noticing all these things much more nowadays (again, there’s a whole blog post to be written about this – I have so many things I want to write about, but I can’t make all the words at once)!

After the second session there was a drinks reception in a very reverberant space. I stayed for only a few minutes because I knew it was seriously overtaxing my system. I left everyone else to it and went outside and sat on a step, rocking, in the twilight (and the freezing cold – really should have taken a coat) and put my ear defenders on. I was there for maybe half an hour until the cold got the better of me and I ventured back inside, still wearing my ear defenders, and eventually found a couple of friends and we headed off to dinner.

That time alone, cutting the world out, making everything as silent as possible (not completely silent, but significantly better), and stopping all interaction or worrying about sitting still, really really helped. I would have liked to be at the reception. I would have liked to have been drinking wine instead of elderflower fizzy stuff, I would have liked to be networking, chatting to friends, catching up with everyone, looking at the exhibits and so on, but I am learning that this is the sort of thing that I need to ration very very heavily in order to be able to stay well. This is one of the ways in which I am, perhaps, most disabled – I cannot take part in events such as noisy drinks receptions for any length of time unless I accept that it will have a seriously negative impact upon my health. I have long known that parties and so on tire me beyond belief and cause me to become seriously unwell afterwards – I do at least now know why and I can start to control things a bit.

Refreshed from my “time out”, I was then able to go into dinner, chat to people around me with some confidence, and to spend an evening in the Common Room, which actually turned out even to be enjoyable. My best friend ensured I was sitting in a reasonably advantageous position at dinner (as close to a corner as possible to avoid sensory input from all directions), I took care not to over eat, as before, and later, when I started to feel slightly dizzy and unable to comprehend words while standing and increasingly failing to take part in a group conversation, I went to sit down. I’ve also discovered that I find conversation much easier when I’m seated – If I’m not using energy to stand then I have more available to be able to convert thoughts to words!

So this week’s “event” went well. It was also easier than previous times doing similar things have been. I suspect this is partly because I’m starting to see a bit of recovery from burnout, partly because I have a new-found confidence following my diagnosis (more on that in a future post), and partly because I’m learning what strategies work to help me get through such an event without ending up sick for days afterwards.

Admittedly, I had to adapt my behaviour quite considerably yesterday, I didn’t get out of bed until after 2pm today, and I wouldn’t have been able to hold much of a conversation this morning (I tried a little speech earlier but it was really hard work and since I’m here alone I didn’t even bother using that amount of energy for anything more than experimental purposes), but it’s progress. It’s working out how I can best function in the world and get the most possible out of life without destroying myself in the process!

Looking at Eyes

I was chatting on Facebook messenger with a friend of mine. We’ve been friends around 5 years, and she is probably, after my husband and best friend, the person I see most regularly in real life.

“So what colour are my eyes then?” she asked.

I paused for a moment, thought about her hair, which she dyes dark red, and it seems to match her skin, so I guess that before she dyed it it must have been dark. “Brown!” I respond.

“Er, no, they’re blue actually.”

She then asked me about the eyes of a mutual friend who I also see quite a lot in real life. Even darker dyed hair. I was confident about this one. Much more obvious. “Definitely brown,” I said.

“Nope, wrong again, she’s another like me with dark hair and blue eyes, except that hers are greyer than mine.”

I really wasn’t very good at this eye colour game. So far 0/2 on the eye colour score!

“Her mouth wiggles a bit at the corner sometimes and your teeth point inwards,” I proffered, in an attempt to show that my observation skills weren’t completely up the spout and I hadn’t been ignoring my friends for the last 5 years!

She laughed! And told me that this was further proof of her observation that even before I had the slightest clue that I was autistic my eye contact skills were, at best, somewhat idiosyncratic!

***

I was in the kitchen with my best friend. He asked me if I knew what colour the eyes of a mutual friend of ours were.

I thought about it. Our mutual friend has grey hair. I think it might have been dark when he was younger. Somehow I couldn’t quite imagine what colour eyes he might have though.

I admitted I didn’t know, and that if someone really needed that information from me then the only way I could supply it would be by looking at a photograph.

***

I mentioned eye contact in an earlier blog post. A discussion ensued on my Facebook wall. Somebody I went to school with between the ages of 13 and 18 commented on the discussion. She clearly stated that she remembered that whenever she looked at me I would look away very very fast. She said she thought at the time it was something that “clever people did.”

***

My husband says that when I do look in his direction I then don’t look away when most people would. He says it’s as if I point my eyes in that direction and then just forget and leave them there. It always slightly freaks him out!

***

So, it seems that I have been “faking it” as far as eye contact is concerned, probably all my life. I’ve certainly never been able to glean information about the state of a person from their eyes, beyond such things as closed = maybe asleep, or tears = maybe sad or happy. I’ve also observed that even when watching television I don’t look at eyes. I go through my life and think of people I know or have known quite well – relatives, friends, former colleagues. I cannot picture what any of their eyes look like. I know they must have eyes, but I cannot visualise any of them. But I can easily visualise mouths and noses, and, in some cases, ears.

This faking really has been fake. Even when I’ve apparently been looking at eyes, I haven’t taken in any information about them. I cannot picture what my own mother’s eyes look like. Not a hope.

This is still news to me. I wasn’t aware of anything beyond remembering instructions given to me as a child, probably by schoolteachers (I can’t remember) saying “Look at me when I’m talking to you!” So I did as I was told. For the next 40 years.

So why have I been faking it? Why is looking at eyes so weird?

I believe that the schoolteachers probably wanted me to look at them because they thought that it was an indicator that I was paying attention (which it wasn’t – I was, and still am, perfectly capable of paying attention to what someone is saying without looking at them – probably rather better that way in fact). I have also looked at fellow musicians when playing chamber music and so on, and again I think it’s just a sign to people saying “I know you’re there, I’m listening to your part, and I’m paying attention.” It doesn’t actually help me to pay attention, but I know that people think you’re paying more attention if you look at them. It’s a learnt fact and a practised technique. It’s been a large part of the mask. But as far as communication is concerned it’s meaningless to me except to show that I’m paying attention.

And, it seems that while I’ve been faking some sort of approximate eye contact I’ve been using massive amounts of energy to do so (as described in An Experiment) and been pretty much avoiding the real thing whenever possible.

And all this while not even knowing I was autistic. I had no reason to avoid eye contact. Not anything tangible. But I did this fake thing for decades. So it was obviously something that wasn’t quite comfortable for me.

And so recently I’ve tried to describe what actual eye contact (from the few moments it has happened unavoidably and sort of by accident, when I haven’t moved my gaze fast enough) actually feels like to me.

And the best I can come up with is that it feels a bit like being naked in public in front of an audience somewhere very very important and totally overwhelmed in a way I can’t describe, and a bit like being poked with a sharp stick.

Which, when I put it like that, explains perfectly why I’ve faked it all my life and why I will now only even attempt it when absolutely necessary. Eye contact might be some wonderful communicative thing in some people’s worlds, but in my world it’s just rather creepy and uncomfortable.

I’m eccentric, but not “get naked in front of an audience until my brain explodes” and “be poked with a sharp stick” sort of eccentric!