One of the most striking things that happens to so many of us who are diagnosed or identified as autistic late or very late on in life is that as we learn about autism and what it actually means and how it affects our lives, there is this constant stream of “lightbulb moments” where events from the past suddenly make sense and can thus be reinterpreted very differently. Those of us who grew up oblivious to the fact we were autistic but just knew that life was very very difficult (and assumed, since it was all we knew, that that was the case for everyone but that they somehow coped with the difficulties better than we did) have a lot of reframing of our past to do and a lot of moments that we can now perceive completely differently as a result of knowing we’re autistic.
A couple of days ago I was looking through my “on this day” feature on facebook, as I do most morning, and this status from two years ago appeared:
It is so nice to be alone. Away from all the other people and “group work” (i.e. HELL). Just me, York Bowen viola music on the laptop, a bottle of wine, and a box of maltesers.
I was instantly struck by my relief at being alone and my assertion that group work was hell. I decided to have a look at some of the comments I’d made on the status and they made for further interesting reading:
I’m at Open University Summer School. There are people everywhere. They’re lovely people, but I’m just not good with lots of people all at once. They all have social skills that I just can’t do. The work itself is no probs, but then we’re told to “discuss this with the people sitting around you” and “work in groups” and all I hear is noise. I don’t have the filters for it. Everyone else chats and laughs and I feel lonely and isolated. I drove off campus this evening and found a Tesco to buy stuff then just drove, with music, on my own. It was the most soothing bit of the day.
I limit parties and things because I know they use so much energy and I often need a lot of time to recover. If I was an animal in the wild I’d be a polar bear or something that lived a largely solitary life.
Interacting with people all day is just exhausting. The maths is easy, and the people are nice, but there are so many of them, and it’s so tiring having to smile and pretend to be normal all day.
This is going to be a very very long week. People keep telling me I’ll love it. I’m not loving it. I arrived and broke down in tears and collapsed. If there was a way I could get out of it I would. I hate it.
All the above remarks in italics were written over a year before I knew I was autistic. As far as I knew at that time I just had mental health problems and, at the time I believed the only current issue I had was what I believed to be “normal” levels of anxiety. The disability officer from the course had even called me the previous week to check that I was OK (having read on my student record that I was listed as having bipolar disorder) and I’d assured him that I was between episodes and that everything was absolutely fine and I didn’t need any accommodations but thank you for asking etc etc. The only thing I did check was that I would have a bedroom on my own – I have known all my life that sharing sleeping space with anyone other than people close to me and selected by me is absolute anathema and on the occasions where I’ve been forced into that situation I’ve spent the night anxious and sleepless, desperately waiting for morning.
So I set off to Summer School without any adaptions in place. And I struggled from the outset. I arrived at registration in tears, desperate already to go home, but knowing that this was a compulsory course and I’d fail the degree without it. I sat through a lecture about group work and about how we were being assessed on our interactions with the other students (all of whom were complete strangers to me) and that we had to be actively participating and not looking at the ceiling or staring out of the window because we would otherwise be marked down. The fear started to rise. My anxiety levels started to skyrocket. I remember being desperate to get out and to go home. No degree was worth this amount of torture, surely?
And, as we moved into the group work session and I sat with three complete strangers trying to design some sort of mathematical modeling experiment, trying to look into these strangers’ eyes and to “look interested” and to do all the things we’d been told to do in the lecture, the tears started to roll down my face and then the crushing panic as the noise got louder and louder and the voices of the people around me started to blur into this horrendous and incomprehensible sound and then it felt like the walls of the lecture theatre were going to crush me to death, and the inevitable meltdown happened.
I sat in the corridor outside the lecture theatre rocking and crying until someone eventually found me. I can’t remember exactly what happened next, but it became obvious that I wasn’t going to cope with being a “normal” student. Some adaptions were made for me – I was moved to a different overall group with fewer people, and it was agreed that I would always have a seat near the door or on the end of a row, not in the middle of the room.
It helped a bit, but after a couple of days I was finished. I’d also pretty much stopped eating by this stage (the dining hall was another source of noisy clattering fear and social interaction, and any acquisition of food that required any input from me was impossible for me – I stood in front of a toasting machine one morning at breakfast and cried because I just couldn’t work out how to get toast – I would have gone hungry that morning had another student not made some toast for me and put it in front of me).
I was in touch, as usual, with friends and my husband via facebook. My husband offered to drop everything and come up on the train to see whether he could sort me out and calm me down and get me eating again. The course directors were initially reluctant – I wasn’t registered as needing a carer, and they were also suspicious that my husband would arrive and simply take me home. However, it was fast becoming obvious that I wasn’t going to last much longer on my own anyway so my husband was allowed to join me and he arrived and brought my “safe” foods and got me eating again and somewhat back on track and I managed to stay for the rest of the course.
I remained very stressed for the rest of the week, but as the end approached things did improve. I self-medicated heavily with alcohol and caffeine in order to cope, and landed up in a group with some very good people who helped me through the group work and seemed fine about having to sit near the door in every room (I’m still facebook friends with them, two years on). Perversely, one of the parts of the course that many people were worried about was the presentation to a room full of tutors and other students – for me it was the easiest and least stressful part of the whole experience! This seems to be the story of my life – I find things that others find so easy that they don’t even think about them really really challenging, and things that others find challenging I often find unproblematic!
And, it’s only now, two years after the event and eleven months after starting seriously to investigate the possibility that I might be autistic and what that even meant, that I can now understand just WHY Summer School was so difficult for me, and just how disabled I am and how much support I need at times in order simply to survive. Back then I didn’t have a clue about “sensory spoons” or that not having the ability to cope with multiple conversations in a room was the result of the way my brain was wired rather than me just being hopeless. I’d never heard the phrase “executive functioning” and couldn’t work out why an unfamiliar toaster might make me cry and I simply wouldn’t be able to work out how to use it. I didn’t know just how much energy I was using coping with eating whatever food they provided rather than my own routine “safe” foods that I usually had at home. I didn’t know why the lecture on group work made me so terrified, and I couldn’t begin to comprehend how the other students could spend all day in lectures and group work and chatting at coffee breaks and then go to the bar in the evening and STILL cope without crying and breaking and sobbing and rocking in the corridor – I just assumed they were geniuses of some sort with unlimited energy and resources and that I was broken and pathetic. I never even found the bar!
Now it’s all explained. And now I have to work out what to do when I go away from home on my own in the future. I still don’t have it worked out. I’m supposed to be going away in a few weeks’ time and I need to work out what accommodations might be possible and what I will need in order to get through the week. Then I need to communicate it to the people concerned, which is even harder. I’m struggling with it, even with the knowledge I now have, and when the confirmation e-mail arrived in my inbox the other day I went into a state of abject terror and nearly cancelled. I’m still trying to work out what to do so I don’t end up with a repeat of the Summer School scenario.
And although I now know why all these things have gone wrong, I’m still less than a year into the whole “knowing I’m autistic” thing. I have no problems with being autistic – it’s simply the way that I am – but asking for help has never been something I’ve found easy, and I’m still trying to work out exactly what “help” would actually be helpful, which is another huge job on its own! And after 4 decades of believing that when I couldn’t cope it was my fault and I just had to deal with it, the change in perspective is absolutely massive.
This is still, I keep reminding myself, a process. And, as I keep hearing from those who’ve been through the same process, it will take time.
I hope I’ll be able to work it out eventually!