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#0 What am I and why am I here?

Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a disability which, like many disabilities, can be an isolating and deeply lonely experience. This resource aims to put down onto (virtual) paper the experiences, thoughts, and feelings of an individual with ASD which would otherwise remain, by virtue of the disability itself, quite private. Whether or not they have any value at all to anyone besides myself remains to be seen, but it is hoped by the author that they may reassure and assist those individuals with ASD who are undergoing a similar journey, not only through geoscience and higher education, but also through life in general, perhaps helping to equip them for some of the more difficult and unpleasant moments that they may encounter. Similarly, it is hoped that it may offer some insight into the neurodivergent world of ASD for those who some might describe as ‘neurotypical’, facilitating their vision of the world through autistic eyes, although there is no expectation to, or demand for, change.

There are inevitably some points and ground rules which must be stated and understood by the reader before progressing to any of the following blogs:

  • The content of this site reflects only the personal experiences of a person with ASD, and not those of a medically-trained expert in an appropriate field such as psychology. The reader may attribute such value as they see fit to either end-member.
  • Any names which may be applied are purely fictional and employed to hide the identity of real people. Not a single person will be named or remotely traceable, as their real identities are of no importance to the material.
  • As an individual mind, I reserve the right to refer myself, and only myself, in any such derogatory language as I see fit, and such language is used in reference only ever to the author. Any offence taken by the reader can therefore, only be taken on behalf of the author, which would then lock us both in a carefully-designed paradox of offence-giving and -taking, resulting in a headache for all concerned; please remain easy-going and offence-free.
  • ASD is a spectrum of disability. It would be foolish to believe that any one account of experiences could come close to fully explaining those of every individual with ASD. No part of this material is intended to be entirely representative of the full diversity associated with ASD; it is just one window into a rather complicated world.
  • Everyone is, in one way or anther, unique and special. Despite going to so much effort to highlight ways in which the author, and other people who fit into the category of ASD, are different to many other people, there is no implication of superiority relative to any other person or their respective journey through life. The purpose here is to illuminate diversity and to provide experiential information, not to offer any hierarchical implications, save perhaps for the exclusive inferiority of the author themselves (see point above before reacting).

Why bother?

People with ASD are one of many under-represented groups within higher education. There are many reasons that might account for this – perhaps autistic people preferentially choose not to partake in higher education and associated academic careers. Perhaps they feel that they are obliged to choose not to continue. Maybe they fail to achieve the requirements for progression and fall away naturally, whether happy or not with their circumstances. Either way, there are many traits associated with ASD which are entirely compatible with, and indeed highly beneficial to, a career in academia.

Geoscience is, as a very broad field, rightly recognised for its lack of diversity. A great deal of the focus, particularly in recent years, has been on matters relating to topics such as ethnicity and gender, and rightly so; no right-thinking person would believe that such characteristics should offer any impediment to career. Disability however, has, in my opinion (and no doubt quite debatably), received less attention. In discussion with peers and colleagues, I find many parallels between my own disability-related experience, and their experience of inclusivity; the precise circumstances and scale unquestionably vary from case to case, but the experiences, the resulting emotions, seem to my eyes very similar indeed. It’s not a competition to see who has been most excluded by their respective piece of society; there are bridges to be built between islands rather than comparatively isolationist fortification of one’s own island and subsequent crusade against a greater, all-powerful foe.

By sharing my thoughts, albeit from the fundamentally necessary safety of anonymity, my hope is that there might be some scope for shared experiences to be found. If you do manage to figure out precisely who I am, whether by virtue of your supreme detective skills or due simply to me having the social awareness of a structurally-compromised house brick, please keep it to yourself; I can scarcely find words to describe adequately the safety and security that comes from anonymity and a general lack of attention.

When I was younger, most of the problems I encountered were the result of an underlying lack of understanding of why everything about me, my thought processes, my perception of the world, seemed fundamentally different to those around me. In my case, deep-rooted confusion caused the most extraordinary harm to myself and no small number of people around me, and now that I have a few more years under my belt, it is clear that a conversation between my current and younger selves would have been extraordinarily beneficial. This may reflect, in part, a general improvement of understanding and available support; however, if any of my experiences can be useful to those climbing the ladder behind me, then they should be shared in the only way I can realistically do so, despite the worrying potential for claims of arrogance. One might say “What’s more autistic than dedicating an entire series of blogs to myself?”, but I would justify this apparent ego-pandering by pointing out that I’m the only person I actually know, and attempting to discuss the deepest (or indeed the shallowest) machinations of someone else’s mind would, for me, be illogical, foolhardy, and dangerous. The point of this effort is therefore, to offer a resource to people with ASD in higher education, with specific, but far from exclusive, focus on the general area of geoscience.

A little bit about the author

In due course, there will be far more anonymous information about the author and their experiences within the context of specific scenarios and events; certainly more than they would ordinarily consider remotely comfortable, even with the safety barrier of anonymity. However, in summary:

  • I come from a family filled with ASD, although I was lucky enough to have a number of positive traits which have facilitated academic success, at least enough to allow me to get through higher education.
  • I have a considerable history of mental ill-health, linked in no small part to having needed around 20 years to slowly understand and accept why I am the way that I am.
  • I have more than 15 years of experience in geoscience-based higher education. During this time, I have experienced and witnessed a wide range of instances where someone who had (or whom I rudely presumed to have based on my experiences) ASD was not understood and appeared to suffer in some way for it.
  • I find social communication in almost all forms extremely difficult, and frequently find myself in very awkward situations with people who either don’t really understand me or have no particular inclination to try.
  • I am particularly susceptible to sensory overload, particularly in relation to specific sounds or a general excess of noise, which can, in extreme cases, provoke something of a fight or flight response.
  • I regularly engage in tactile and vestibular stimming, with slightly less regard for other people’s resulting perception of me as I once did.

What next?

Moving forward, this project will include brief discussions on specific topics which may offer some insight into how the world looks to people who might be somewhat similar to me. The author will draw on their experiences to highlight both the positive points and some of the difficulties that they have identified during their time in higher education, and perhaps before. There will be no particular schedule for content. The aspiration will be to help raise understanding of this particular disability, as well as disabilities in general. The whole project may yet fall into utter obscurity but, at the risk of the worst kind of scepticism, and given the nature of the content, this would only really be in line with the general trend of both enforced and self-inflicted incorporeality of these quiet, and quite splendid characters who, more oft than not, go about their lives quietly, and in their own unique way.

#7 The Demonstrating

Demonstrating. For those who are not familiar, this is just a term used to describe a wide range of teaching activities, usually practical, undertaken generally by those who are very early in their career and who act in support of a more experienced teacher who is ultimately running the show. As such, this is generally the domain of PhD students for whom it is a source of part-time teaching experience and potentially much-needed income, although some fields do have dedicated, full-time demonstrators from more diverse backgrounds. Generally, in geoscience at least, this sort of teaching involves patrolling relatively large-group, practical classes in which students might be looking at maps, undertaking written problem-solving exercises, preparing samples for analysis, or inspecting and describing samples, perhaps using specialist equipment like a microscope. It tends not to involve the more immediately obvious, traditional, lectures, which are often reserved for more experienced teaching staff.

The world of demonstrating is, for everyone I think, somewhat unique in the diversity of environments and challenges that it poses, and that makes it an even more complex environment for autistic people to navigate. In my own experience, it threw up some quite specific challenges which can be readily associated with my autism. We will undoubtedly come on to other areas of teaching, but for now, it makes sense to start here, as I think this is probably the beginning more most people.

When I began my PhD, I sat with my supervisor and discussed my career intentions, agreeing that my desire to pursue an academic path would require me to have as much teaching experience as possible. We agreed that I would take on as much demonstrating as I could, and also that this approach would often involve a good amount of ‘kicks up the arse’, requiring me to do things that I wouldn’t necessarily be comfortable with. Those weren’t decisions made in any way to consider or accommodate my autism; my supervisor and I never really talked about that beyond making jokes about how weird I was in general (a mutually accepted activity that caused no distress on my part). These were just the steps required of anyone to be able to teach. I agreed that I would not only perform the basic duties expected of me, but I would also take on additional teaching activities, which ranged from providing whole-class sum-ups during the aforementioned practical classes, right the way through to delivering entire lectures alone (without the presence of the actual lecturing staff eventually). I don’t resent them for that – they were very accommodating in providing me with teaching experience which did me a lot of good in the long run.

When the time came for me to start, I quickly found that most of my own learning of how to teach was based on imitation (as I’d found for so many aspects of my life). I watched the various academic staff members teach and I imitated them, adopting their own specific practices (not all of which would be regarded as particularly progressive). This general ‘gullibility’, or perhaps just simple-mindedness and willingness to trust authority, left me in position from which I could quite easily be forced into difficult situations, undertaking a range of behaviours or actions which didn’t necessarily belong to me but which I assumed must be normal. Although I don’t think this was necessarily unique to myself as an autistic person (other demonstrators could be just as ‘suggestable’), I do think the ensuing problems relating to my complete lack of the required social capability to follow up on the subsequent issues is an autistic problem. I happily did what I thought was right, without having any means of handling any awkward situations that followed. For example, I remember once being told in the first year of my PhD, and in all seriousness, that when I was delivering my lectures, I should lock the door to the lecture theatre – “Anyone who turns up late should be more punctual, and it’s not fair for them to disrupt everyone else as they come in”. So, that’s what I did (albeit only on one occasion). Did I have the capability to manage the ensuing, and infinitely more disruptive, situation of a student banging on the door and demanding to be allowed entry for 5 minutes? Of course not. Should I ever have done it? Of course not. Did I really have the general mental and experiential wherewithal to realise this at such an early point in my teaching career? Of course not.

Interacting with students

Inevitably, one of the biggest problems that I faced whilst learning to teach was the actual interaction with the students. If I could have simply stood at the front of a lecture theatre and dictated matters of geoscience to an audience that could very easily have not been present for all the interactivity provided (all parties being guilty), then I think I’d have been a great teacher. They do (or did) call autistic children little professors – when it’s something that we’re passionate about, we can talk about it until everyone else in a surprisingly large radius is ready to hurl themselves from something very tall simply to escape. If I could simply have arrived at each lesson and talked for an hour, it would have been perfect. In fact, my supervisor once complimented me on my performance during a specific lecture which I gave two years running, citing an improvement in the students’ exam question that related to that lecture as evidence that I must be quite good at teaching. That made me feel very good indeed. This approach was very much the done thing in my day, but obviously this is recognised as rather antiquated these days. It was in the practical classes where my weaknesses really showed; here, we had to communicate one-to-one with the students, or with small groups at once. I think being a demonstrator puts you in a very precarious position with the students. You are often, in their eyes, clearly not worthy of the title ‘teacher’ being potentially very close in age to them (they often forget how much difference even a few years advantage can have). And yet, you are also not quite one of them, so it’s very much up to each individual demonstrator to win them over to their cause, generally through the implementation of charisma. I don’t have any charisma and it’s an area where my skills of imitation (or masking) are sadly lacking, so that left me in a tricky spot. Other demonstrators of my era were much more capable, potentially employing tactics which I felt (and still feel) were ‘over the line’, to various degrees. Some might have been overly friendly with the students, becoming ‘chummy’ enough to engage in the sort of social events and boozing that I simply cannot engage with, whilst relishing their ability to provide answers to the assigned work, which were gratefully received by students who were at best, happy to engage on an informal level or, at worst, simply playing the game to get the marks. More than one demonstrator of my broad era actually slept with students, crossing more lines than I care to count.

So, if I was deprived of this sort of informal interaction with the students, how did I manage to blunder my way through? The answer is with a considerable amount of difficulty and my own characteristic problems, tensions, and upsets. Efforts to be informal would be largely ignored or laughed at, and would become immediately the subject of considerable internal anger and disappointment on my part, as I used the individual memories as a proverbial rod with which to beat myself in punishment for my lack of ability. By contrast, efforts to be more formal were simply regarded as pomposity, aloofness, or outright arrogance. There was no real way to win, and with each interaction in an agonising learning process, I would become more frustrated with my lack of ability, especially when compared to those colleagues around me for whom it was relatively straightforward. I suppose the best way to think of it is to remember that, by that stage in my life, I probably had the social capability of someone about 10 years my junior. Imagine yourself trying to teach a class of twenty year old students if you were a 10 year old, with all the academic knowledge you have now but none of the social ability.

This caused problems. Students in higher education may be typically between the ages of 18 and 22, but they still have a lot of growing up to do (coming from me, that’s really saying something). When I was a demonstrator, they were terrifyingly reminiscent of all of those people in school, with all of the snobbery (of social skill rather than social class) and outright cruelty that defined them. Many were not overly interested in the content of the lessons and would happily take any opportunity to undermine the authority of an autistic demonstrator who had been left to manage the class. Looking back, the best case scenario was for them to simply lose interest in the class – I could continue doing what I was doing, they could busy themselves chatting to each other, and the class could continue to an academically unsatisfactory but quiet conclusion. It was the ones who took an active dislike to me that were the problem, the ones who felt that I shouldn’t have been allowed to teach them and should therefore be punished. Again, that’s not entirely specific to autism; I’ve seen early career academic staff being subjected to outright hate campaigns by students (and their parents!) because their authority wasn’t recognised. Nevertheless, my ability to handle such situations was essentially non-existent, which generally led to it being entirely internalised, much to the despair of my mental health.

The student example

I have an example of just how quickly this can happen, which is arguably the exclusive result of my autism and others’ perception of that autism. I recall, as a demonstrator getting towards the end of my PhD (and therefore arguably with a reasonable amount of demonstrating experience), I was asked to deliver a lecture to a class of around 25 students. I’d given many lectures before, but I’d never lectured to this group before; they had no real prior knowledge of me, nor I of them. As I lectured, lost as always in the subject matter, I became aware that three young women were being moderately disruptive, messing around with their phones and giggling. I didn’t want it to cause any further disruption, so I simply ploughed on with the lecture. When all was said and done, I returned to my desk in the PhD office and discovered that they had been taking photographs of me whilst lecturing and publishing them on social media, alongside a crudely drawn cartoon of me which really highlighted the most negative parts of my physical appearance and was emblazoned with the title “Shut the Fuck Up [insert my name here]”. The posts were already attracting no small amount of attention from students, some of whom were more than happy to engage with the materials. Suffice to say, I was crushed. I had, and continue to have, major difficulties with my own appearance – it may be more fashionable to talk about certain aspects of body image (and indeed shaming) these days, but I simply cannot bear to see myself in general, either in the mirror or via photos, not because I’m overweight, or too skinny, but because I’m just an ugly bastard (to use the good old fashioned terminology). Now this very feature of me was being emblazoned on the internet and mocked openly. It was just like being back at school again, trying to navigate a minefield of surrounding ‘normal’ people who exhibit a profound and troubling tendency towards cruelty. As always, I must remain open to all interpretations. It is possible that I was just a twat, and they wanted to punish me for that. However, to my knowledge (and that of those colleagues who bore witness to the unfortunate event), I hadn’t acted in any way that would have provoked such a response. My general interpretation then is actually one of prejudice. The three young women who chose to punish me had presumably exhibited exactly the same bullying tendencies in school and college (which they’d only just left behind in the grand scheme), and simply saw someone who was clearly not going to be able to defend themselves. They were punished accordingly by a much more senior member of staff to whom I am very grateful, who put the fear of god into them and forced written and face-to-face apologies, of which the latter I was of course entirely unable to manage socially. I wish I had then the capability I have now – I would really relish the opportunity to ask them precisely why they were so determined to be so cruel to someone they didn’t know and, I’m ashamed to say, to shout at them with the anger I felt at the time but didn’t know how to express. Here’s the unpopular argument – what would it have been like if they’d picked on someone on the grounds of their ethnicity, gender, or even a physical and obvious disability? Would the overall response have been the same? Or is it just more socially acceptable to target someone with a so-called hidden disability? Imagine how much trouble they would have been in if they attacked someone for their sexuality. I think this sort of treatment of autistic people (remembering that autism occurs in so many different forms and degrees of severity) might be quite common really, but just not as interesting.

The staff example

In fairness, it’s not just the student interactions that cause particular problems for autistic folk. The relationships between a demonstrator and an academic staff member may be completely different in their structure, but they are still subject to same fundamental difficulties of communication when an autistic person is involved. Where the need to manage the relationship with people more junior to yourself is removed, it is replaced by trying to manage someone who knows a great deal more than you do, and who has a great deal of power over a given situation. Academic staff have complete authority over their own classes, and I think I’ve said before that not all academic staff are particularly nice people, which means that they have the power to make your life very difficult. For me, the problems here crept in for two reasons:

  • Firstly, I often observed annoyance from academic staff members that myself and other demonstrators were not knowledgeable enough in the subject matter, meaning that they might seek to punish us for a perceived lack or preparation. That’s not exclusive to autistic people; I think that’s just one of the many examples of abuse of power that exists in academia.
  • Secondly, and more specifically to autistic people, the academic staff member might become annoyed by my lack of social ability and its impact on the teaching of the class, or they might simply get tired of my stereotypically autistic personality in general, and want to lash out for their own satisfaction.

The latter sounds quite melodramatic doesn’t it? I suppose it’s very easy to write off as simply the explanation of events belonging to someone with a chip on their shoulder. I still think it’s true though – I’m not suggesting that everyone is out to get autistic people. I am however, suggesting that I have both seen and experienced first hand a general weariness that comes with having to handle autistic people and their silly autistic ways, which can manifest in some as a trigger to disengage, or in others as a trigger to lash out in one way or another.

I remember acting as a demonstrator on a residential field trip, a common occurrence in geoscience teaching, and a trip I’d done maybe once before as a demonstrator. It was a residential fieldtrip, which inevitably (and literally) dragged me from my comfort zone and forced me to spend a week in (metaphorically) uncomfortable and unfamiliar conditions. One day, I was tasked with providing the students with a sum-up for a specific location. I was given plenty of notice (days), so I was reasonably happy that I could do it, although I was, as always, nervous about having to speak to an entire class at once. As it turns out, the academic staff who were running that day of the trip were having a particularly grumbly day and were generally dissatisfied with the state of higher education, the students, the country, and of course the demonstrators. I was therefore punished at the end of the day. Once I had completed my sum-up, I attempted to hand the reins back to the academic staff, a moment in which one can breath a sigh of relief and know that the spotlight is no longer on yourself whilst someone with both knowledge, authority, and that all-important charisma takes over. However, they didn’t move, instead simply sitting there and insisting that I would now sum-up the entire day of the trip, each and every location that we had visited and its importance to the overall story. It was awful. I hadn’t anything prepared in my mind, so I just had nothing to give other than a jumbled, slurry attempt which everyone present knew was entirely inadequate. I really do find that I need time to prepare for things, even if it’s just to think about what I would like to say and in what order. I never handle things being thrown at me last minute very well, which I also believe to be an autistic trait. I was, of course, horribly embarrassed in front of an audience; my worst nightmare. I spent many weeks getting over that one. As always, with the social capability I have now, I think it would be much easier to stand up to them. I’ve gone through it a thousand times in my head and come to conclusion that the whole thing could have been easily avoided with a simple and cheerful “No thanks, you’re the experts so I’ll leave it to you guys”. It seems easy now; it was inconceivable then.

On this occasion, I don’t think it was something done to me because I was autistic, but it was something that probably shouldn’t have been done to me because I’m autistic. Of course, there is also an argument that I should just suck it up and get on with it; after all, nobody died. Even so, I find that’s the general argument in academia that encourages elitist behaviour and just reinforces the worst aspects of bullying and unpleasantness the have been the foundation of academia for many years.

So what?

I suppose overall, if nothing else, this text is as much of a call for action for demonstrators in general as it is for autistic people who find themselves demonstrating. The position of demonstrator is one of profound weakness, being very much in sights of proverbial flak from above (academic staff) and below (students). That means that people like me, who are in some way socially compromised, are particularly susceptible to the worst outcomes of this peculiar academic structure. There is a great deal of work to be done to fix that structure for all concerned, but I think awareness of autistic people could make a profound improvement. I’d argue that a good portion of it boils down to basic human kindness; most people are capable of recognising someone who is autistic, even if they don’t know which label is appropriate for what they are observing. How they choose to manage that person is what matters, and I’d argue that, at the moment, this is an area where people can get away with quite a lot by virtue of the preferred silence of the autistic people themselves, and societies’ apparent lack of interest in the way autistic people work. There’s work to do on both sides – we, as autistic people, need to be braver and share our stories, and non-autistic people need to be a little more open to understanding how we work. It’s not a demand, just a suggestion. There are so many different aspects of society which are changing rapidly, it seems almost unfair to add more complexity to the situation. Nevertheless, I think even a little more understanding could make a real difference, particularly to a group of people who are probably more likely to internalise their suffering (to their own detriment) than they are to make it known or call it out.

#6 The Mental Health

WARNING: This blog contains frank and honest descriptions of depression and self harm which may be upsetting to some readers.

Let’s talk about mental health. I think this in an inevitable discussion when dealing with the topic of ASD – the evidence of my own experience, alongside what I know and read of others, suggests quite strongly that poor mental health and autism go hand in hand, at least at certain points in people’s lives. At my current age, I find that I have achieved an equilibrium of sorts with my mental health, an understanding, with neither of us having the mastery overall, yet somehow managing to co-exist. It really does just come down to experience, and learning to manage myself in a way that works for me and others. However, in my early life, I was utterly managed, controlled, ruled, by depression; there was little in the way of ups and downs, it was just downs of varying severity.

It began in my early teens when I completely shut down, in what I believe those in the know refer to as a ‘regression’. I went from being a relatively happy, if shy, child to an entirely incapable teenager, losing all social skills, the ability and drive to do anything, and to some extent, the ability to speak. You could argue “that’s just any teenager”, but this was extreme. I simply couldn’t function and didn’t know why. I remember standing in the doorway to a German language class, unable to enter, unable to cross the threshold, with no idea why, until the teacher appeared and angrily slammed the door in my face. I remember crying in the school councillors office, with no idea why – not floods of wailing tears, just a steady flow of silent sadness. I didn’t know how to do anything. My hitherto fantastic grades were decimated, I was removed from school entirely and sent to a unit populated primarily by students with extreme learning difficulties or severe behavioural problems (like arson), and governed by a truly vile old lady with neither sympathy nor care for her charges. I didn’t feel that I belonged with either group, but at every turn, I was just told firmly and bluntly that it was necessary and for my own good. When I most needed help and understanding, I received only contempt, treated as if I was bad and in need of punishment. If the aforementioned witch had been in possession of a magic quill, I would undoubtedly have something along the lines of “I must be good” carved into the back of my hand. Looking back, I suppose it was for my own good – I barely scraped the GSCEs which got me into college, but it is a part of my life that I very rarely visit in thought, the few memories I still have of it being sufficiently painful to keep me well and truly away. It’s part of the reason I’m doing what I’m doing – I hate the way people like me can be treated (or abused) without fear of punishment.

This was the beginning of the new me. The comparatively happy and rather talented child was gone and, for the first time, I remember being me, the me that I am today. Everything before that is gone. Whoever that was, they don’t exist anymore. From that point onwards, I was plagued with many of the typical characteristics of ASD. It sounds dramatic, but it’s quite true. I went to college and managed to get a place at university, although my prior academic strength had faded away. I was desperate to study the things which I knew I had previously loved – Geoscience. I was driven, compelled even, to pursue the academic pathway laid down for me in a past that didn’t belong to me anymore, because that’s what they had always wanted, and so it must be what I had always wanted. I struggled, not necessarily due to lack of ability, but more a lack of interest and drive – those belonged to another person. As such, my grades were not great, but they allowed to continue for around five years until, towards the end of my undergraduate degree, I finally woke from the perpetual malaise and regained some measure of control over my own mind, my thoughts, and myself in general.

Before this however, my mental health was poor. What began with silent grief for something that hadn’t happened inevitably became more complex as I went through all the trials and changes associated with being a teenager. I lost childhood friends for no particular reason, I just didn’t know how to communicate with them anymore. I became angry, deeply and utterly frustrated by my inability to function, to express myself, to interact with others. I became intensely depressed, spending more and more time on my own, delving deeper and deeper into increasingly obsessive behaviour, like listening to the same 20 second section of a single piece of music for hours on end, wearing out the buttons on my pocket CD player, just to experience the sensations that it gave me, driving me deeper and deeper into a black spiral.

When I arrived at university, left essentially alone to manage myself, the norm for my mental health shifted rapidly. Now I was completely unfettered, able to reach new extremes of entirely inexpressible emotion. I remember feeling as if I were bursting with emotional energy, which I desperately need to expend or I’d explode. I redirected some of it and became incredibly creative, teaching myself to play my preferred musical instrument from scratch, all through the night, driven by manic energy. When my finger tips were worn away and could no longer grip the smooth plastic, I covered them all in sticking plasters and continued. I drew things, I made things, I created my own increasingly and absurdly complex codes and alphabets, using them to scrawl down my thoughts and feelings in secret books that no-one would (or could) ever read. My most complex had more than a hundred different letters, each with its own sound and symbol. I used to describe it as a sort of white noise – imagine the black and white static on old TVs, and the angry, fuzzy noise that accompanied it. It was like a black form of white noise that would descend and fill my head, keeping me awake and filling me with what I called ‘mad energy’. I tried everything, including drinking a bottle of vodka, or filling a backpack with all of my heaviest textbooks and rocks, strapping it to my back, and running through the woods as fast as I could in the middle of the night, bouncing off trees and tripping over branches in the terrifying pitch black, just to reach a point of blissful exhaustion, at which point I could finally fall away into the sort of dreamless sleep that you achieve when you are utterly spent.

It didn’t work. Things became steadily worse, until I became deeply suicidal, making numerous attempts over the years. I could think of little else for a very long time, on the scale of years. On the simplest level, there was something deeply wrong with me and I didn’t understand what it was. I didn’t know what I know now. It all seems so simple now, I can find all of the terms which perfectly describe my experiences in 5 minutes online, as well as a thousand other people talking about their own similar stories. But times were different then and I was quite alone, despite my small cluster of friends. I had, in my college years, dabbled with self harm once, as a way or relieving tension, using a Stanley knife to create a few very small and shallow cuts on my hand. Now, the idea returned to me, and I dabbled again. I would never recommend that anyone do any such thing, nor do I intend to glorify it, but in the same way as others derive some comfort from abusing their bodies with alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs, I found that self harm was the only thing that, excuse the pun, cut through the white noise and brought me straight to the safety of utter exhaustion. I experimented. I cut myself with a serrated kitchen knife, I scalded myself with boiling water, beat myself with a steel rod, smashed my head into the wall over and over again, whatever it took to drive off the white noise and deliver me to soothing unconsciousness. And, unfortunately, it was bliss. I recall one night, whilst living in student halls, being woken by a fire alarm at around 03:00 in the morning, a routine test designed to cause maximum disruption. I was forced to stand outside in the cold and the dark, having been dragged from the supreme comfort of unconsciousness, and wait until a register was taken. I sat on the kerb and felt the mad energy building, and my mood lowering into despair – I’ve never been good without sleep. When I finally returned to my room, I knew there was no sleep to be had. I had little choice; I went into the bathroom with a knife, shut the door, and spent the next hour slowly, methodically slicing into every bit of my body that I could reach, all over my arms, legs, chest, belly, and face, until the blood was pooling around my feet. I wasn’t crying while I did it, if anything I was filled with manic energy and anticipation for the peaceful oblivion that would follow. When I was done, I knew I could finally relax and fell immediately asleep.

Looking back now, with the experience I now have, I would dare to venture my own opinion on why this madness transpired. It is clear that I was struggling to understand or interpret the complex stream of my own emotions, my own feelings. I experienced all of the things that we do at that age, excitement, sadness, attraction and love, happiness, anger and frustration, jealousy, fear for the future, etc. What I was not able to do was to decode and interpret these feelings properly, leaving a jumbled and chaotic mess of emotion which was ultimately overwhelming. Again, I’m sure this is relatively common in teenagers – everything seems so much more dramatic at that age. Nevertheless, both my difficulties and behaviour were extreme and represented a desperate attempt to manage those feelings which ultimately took me a lot longer (probably about 3 or 4 times as long) than most other people. In the face of that overwhelming chaos, my obsession with hurting myself was really just a way to take explicitly mental pain and turn it into something which I could actually understand – physical pain. It was a very strange way to go about it, but that was ultimately the only way that I could interpret those emotions.

It has taken me years to learn the language of these feelings and emotions, and I believe that my current relative equilibrium with mental health stems from my newfound ability to read those feelings correctly. It’s like the wires in my brain had to be sorted out, in a lengthy process that remains incomplete – I still misinterpret my own and other people’s emotions regularly, and I have resorted to harming myself even at my current age, when things get particularly difficult. In fairness to myself, this has actually only really been in response to direct psychological attack from external parties who deliberately drove me towards ill health. Academia is, and always will be, a difficult place with no shortage of potentially quite awful people. If nothing else, I have gained some experience in how to manage the situations that arise from those difficulties – enough to manage myself and feel confident in passing on my own thoughts anonymously. It’s still not fun, far from it. It’s painful, awkward, and humiliating. But at least those wires are starting to find their way to the right places.

I should add here that I do not in any way advocate self harm. I describe my experiences here purely to provide information. In fact, one of the most important things I’ve learned about myself is how to recognise a fundamental transition in my own health. Self harm is not a clean thing, there’s something dirty about it, something unpleasant and taboo. As and when my mental health deteriorates for whatever reason, I find these views change slowly and insidiously, until the concept becomes glorious, exciting even. Now I know how to deal with that, but I suppose there is an element of abuse there, as one with a history of drug use might need to remain forever vigilant against their own potential rationalisation of their own potential coping strategy. For that reason, I would warn people against this form of coping with ASD-related problems – if I had been presented with more knowledge, understanding, and practical means of battling my own demons, perhaps I would never have gone down that road. Maybe things have already changed for the current generation of autistic people as our society has become a little more enlightened – I hope so.

#5 The Academic Environment

Academia is, in my opinion, an incredibly unusual and privileged environment to find oneself in. I was always fascinated by and drawn to this way of living and working, in which you acquire access to some extraordinary privileges and prestige, and are arguable encouraged to never really switch off – work never ends, but it shouldn’t because you enjoy it so much. I visited Cambridge University as a child, as part of a school trip, and I immediately fell in love with the notion that I could live and work in such an environment. Even so, I’ve never really managed to hold a ‘proper’ academic job – as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, my slightly unusual, quirky, and somewhat incapable way of managing my interactions with other people has only ever acted against me in the realms of employment, and it certainly doesn’t reflect something I would brag about. I know that there were instances where I wasn’t good enough, but I also know there were instances where I just wasn’t quite normal enough. It’s common to use that sort of ‘humble brag’ of being too unique to get by, but I certainly don’t use it in that sense. I am quite sure it played a role without needing to rule out my academic failings.

As time goes on, I have grown to envy those who do switch off from the job, and from the state of Twitter these days, I think a lot of other people in academia are feeling the same, albeit with varying degrees of zealotry. So I suppose the question is, having tried so hard to get into that particular elite club of privileged individuals, would it actually be worth it? As I’ve grown older, the innocent view of academia that I once held has rather fallen away, most likely a result of my own increasing understanding of the people I saw and engaged with, and their underlying motivations. Looking on now, I see academia as a really rather hostile environment for anyone, never mind for folks who face the sorts of challenges associated with ASD. Even in Geoscience, an area which I have found somewhat friendlier and more casual than other areas of education, there remain significant challenges. I resort to a very simplistic means of describing the situation, but one which reflects truthfully how I perceive it. There are a lot of good people in academia. Very good people. Nice people who are an absolute joy to work with. And yet, there are also a lot of not so nice people. There are some nasty people too. Maybe even really nasty people who, by virtue of their rank, position, status, experience, or even their personal characteristics, are accustomed to being able to behave in a certain way which, I feel, would be entirely unacceptable in any other context. You don’t need to look far to find tales of major cases of bullying, harassment, racism, sexism, and so on in our academic institutions. I think that’s inevitable when we promote a culture in which academic status makes you unquestionable, supreme. There is a difference between academic respect and omnipotence, but that’s just my opinion. Some people would really benefit from being told they’re an arse every now and then.

For me, the big problem arises when someone with ASD finds themselves in such an environment, in a position where any potential deficits in social capability leave them open to exploitation or abuse. I can speak from experience on that one, having encountered quite a few situations that I was ultimately unable to manage, and in which I was in some way exploited. Beginning at the lesser end of the scale, I found that I was, particularly in my comparative youth, very easy to ignore, dominate intellectually, cajole, influence, and so on. I find people like me are often too keen to avoid even the smallest degree of confrontation, as something which is extremely uncomfortable and genuinely hard to navigate, resulting in a very easy way to manipulate us for those sufficiently unpleasant to want to use it. Moreover, I’ve also encountered a curious phenomenon in some other people in which, the eventual appearance of ‘character strength’ in someone like me, exemplified perhaps by becoming more confident, bold, or generally more capable, can actually promote a negative response. People sometimes lash out and get angry, unwilling to accept your newfound ability, having presumably preferred a much more malleable, compliant, and controllable form of you. I’ve certainly experienced this one – more than one person has immediately had a problem with me as soon as I became confident to do something without their help. It may seem quite trivial, but I have genuinely lost sleep over the friends I’ve ended up leaving behind (their choice, not mine) because they didn’t like me as soon as I became more like them in terms of general social ability.

Another example which is also, arguably, less significant overall, is the whole area of intellectual property. Again, I’m pleased to see that people do seem to be having these conversations now, pointing out that it is no longer acceptable to simply use and abuse people without recognising their contributions. I recall being regularly pressured to undertake work beyond my role that more important people were simply too important to do, and I was made to feel very, very bad for attempting to stand up to them. I was made to feel like a problem, a troublemaker, just because I was trying to stand up for myself. I didn’t have the social skills to manage that situation, and I was infinitely more inclined to doubt my own feelings than to try and do battle with someone else. I really do think that’s a kind of subtle abuse, and I have spoken to others since who have assured me that this is a form of academic misconduct on the aggressors part. When I eventually gave in and undertook a particular variety of data production work that an academic staff member wouldn’t (and in fact couldn’t) do, I was quickly proven right in my thoughts. It emerged subsequently that the data I had produced and processed were in the process of being published without my knowledge or consent. I only found out when the academic in question asked me to provide further information in response to a reviewer question (no-one on the author list had any understanding of the technique or the data processing methods used). I was a little more capable by this point in my career, so although I didn’t kick up the fuss which others have subsequently told me I was entitled to, I did make a gentle indication of my concerns, and was eventually rewarded by having my name published in the acknowledgments section of the resulting journal article, spelt incorrectly for good measure. Some reward. I think that my more socially capable peers would be much more inclined to stand up to this sort of challenge. I, on the other hand, feel that I suffered greatly from this sort of continuous pressure which, on some level, was quite deliberate in its application. They regarded me simply as that strange individual who does that sort of thing down there, who won’t need to be involved in any of the ensuing research benefits.

At the opposite end of the spectrum lie some much more nasty people, and I must admit that, as a result of my own experiences, I now feel a profound desire to fight for people who, like me, have no real way to stand up that sort of person simply because of who they are and how they think. This particular variety of nasty person is well versed in how to control people like me, having recognised early on that a lack of social skills makes ASD folk easy prey. I was once on the receiving end of a targeted campaign of bullying from an individual, which aimed to break me down and render me entirely compliant, both as a personal minion whose labour could contribute to their research at no cost, and also as a convenient scapegoat, whose incompetence could be held up in their annual review meetings as a convenient example of why they were not able to meet the requirements of their own academic role. This was a very bleak part of my life, in which I was continually and deliberately forced into confrontational situations which I simply had absolutely no capability to deal with. I didn’t know what to do, on the most simple and basic level. I’d just clam up, look at the floor, go red. I had no choice but to try and blunder my way through each situation as it arose, unable to stand up for myself, forced to resort to extreme methods such as simply fleeing the situation, pre-emptively hiding elsewhere to avoid them, or on a number of occasions, quite severe self harm. The individual in question was entirely aware of who and what I was, and knew exactly what they were doing, having recognised that I could be used to prop up their own position due to my inherent weakness. I faced un-ending e-mail bombardments, more often than not including exponentially growing lists of cc’d people, who were deliberately brought in to the conversations to keep me well and truly pinned down beneath the weight of social pressure. I was threatened, albeit via insinuation, with threats of potential false accusations of sexist behaviour to keep me nice and docile, too afraid for my otherwise unblemished reputation to fight back. Again, they knew exactly what they were doing.

I think this particular part of my life really contributed to my decision to open up about my experiences and try to make a difference on behalf of people who might feel the same as me. It is important to note that the individual responsible for this latter, most extreme form of workplace bullying was actually the departmental lead for equality and diversity at that particular institution. They were the one I was supposed to go to if I had any problems relating to my disability. And yet, they had in fact weaponised their role, twisting it to suit their own career needs, and were able to get away with extraordinary bullying simply by virtue of the fact that I did not fit into the categories of equality and diversity which were, and remain, firmly in the limelight of modern academia. I’m quite open to the possibility that I am quite alone in this opinion, but I think that is a pretty serious problem.

I suppose my real point here is that this sort of thing needs to be called out. In the same way that we are told to be vigilant against the presence of institutionalised racism and sexism, to call it out when we see it rather than simply ignore it, and in doing so, validate it, we also need to call out ableism when we see it. Why would it be acceptable to upset or hurt someone with ASD by refusing to tolerate or understand them if it is unacceptable to do precisely that on the grounds of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, or anything else you care to think of. If a high-ranking staff member described someone using a racial or sexist slur, they would be rightly hanged, drawn, and quartered (figuratively), but when I see with my own eyes a high-ranking university staff member using a similarly unpleasant slur aimed specifically at disabled people, casually thrown out in conversation with an expectation of ensuing laughter, somehow it doesn’t have the same impact. Why is that? Does my particular variety of ‘protected trait’ not deserve the same focus? I think we need to be more aware of how much prejudice is being quietly aimed at people who are, through no fault of their own, easy targets who may be less inclined to speak out. If they’re anything like I have been in the past, they may not even realise they are being wronged. I know for a fact that many people instinctively recognise that something’s not quite right when they meet people like me, but still don’t really feel a need to act when they see the same person getting a hard time and struggling because they simply can’t manage the situation in the same way as some of their peers might. It’s happened to me; it’s happened in front of me. Perhaps if people were just a little more aware of what’s going on behind the scenes, in that person’s potentially impenetrably private mind, they might be more inclined to speak up.

#4 The Research

“Publish or perish”. That’s what they say, whoever they are. The phrase used to fly around a lot back when I was doing my PhD, although amongst my cohort, it was used in jest, more as a mockery of those who would take it seriously – a liberation of the phrase I suppose, a conversion into a weapon to be used against those who used it to justify their superiority. And yet, in my experience at least, it is true. The ability to churn out research is widely, and sadly, regarded as the most significant skill an academic can have, and something that people get very, very snooty about, citing their weaponised metrics as a means of demonstrating, with little subtlety, their complete supremacy. As I get older, I start to view that sort of thing with something more along the lines of pity I think; it’s just insecurity manifested through the lens of academia.

When I first entered that particular world, I had high hopes of a career in research; it was, after all, the bit of the job I liked the most at the time. I wasn’t good at teaching back then (I may not be now); the students scared me deeply as nothing more than newer forms of the sort of people I’d grown up with at school, many of whom leaned toward cruelty with little encouragement. But when it came to research, I could just burrow myself into an appropriate den and pore over the secrets of the Earth, plundering exquisite journal articles for their ideas, creating increasingly complex spreadsheets to contain vast quantities of data. Heaven, on some level, and a part of my life I remember quite fondly.

Inevitably, it soon became apparent that were some aspects of my nature which were not compatible with the world of research at all. I was used to having people looking down their noses at me, to some extent being pitied as soon as I opened my mouth, but nothing prepared me for the impact of laying upon these pre-existing difficulties the additional horrors of academic snobbery. I attended conferences and was ignored. I met high-ranking scientists, world-leaders in some cases, and made little to no impression. I belonged to no high-output research groups, I had no access to the sort of expensive equipment that I needed to produce even basic data for my field. I passed through the most important relationship-building phase of my career like a ghost. I watched on as others excelled, those who could wow at conferences, or schmooze up to to the right people. Those who, by virtue of their host institution, had access to all the toys they could ever want, and belonged to research groups who won grant applications before they were read and whose every paper was heralded as a ‘game-changer’ or a ‘paradigm-shifter’. Sometimes that is no doubt the case. Other times, I wondered if some people had simply reached the lofty height from which they could do no wrong (academically and personally, based on an upcoming manuscript on bullying, abuse, and prejudice in geoscience). I looked on and wondered who was to blame.

In truth, I think it’s a little from column A and a little from column B. I think it’s important when comparing yourself to others to remember that you might just not be good enough. Before we play whatever cards we have to play, it’s only right and humble to consider the option that you might just not be good enough to succeed – there’s only room at the top for a few, and even a few levels down from the top only has so much space to go around. I’ve published papers in high-ranking journals, and they’ve been quite highly cited, certainly enough to make me happy that they’ve been found to be useful by the community at large. But maybe they weren’t good enough. Or frequent enough, perhaps? I’ve won no awards, nor am I valued for my opinion or insight into matters academic or otherwise, I am not part of the great groups who churn out high quality research or who change the very face of academia with their noble crusades against prejudice, and other such injustice. How could I be – nobody knows me, my name, my thoughts, or my actions.

I wonder what things would be like if someone like me had been given more, not so much opportunity, but leniency? Understanding? Might I have climbed a little higher if the system and its many denizens had been a little more accommodating and slightly less cutthroat? Could I have achieved more in an academic environment where the ability to charm the right people wasn’t quite as important as it is? It always felt like my ‘problematic nature’ would have been helpful for a research career, but it soon fell apart as soon as I realised that doing the actual research was only a small part of the battle. If I’m brutally honest, it makes me really, truly quite sad, looking back at how it made me feel at the time. I get angry at myself, looking back and knowing how others were perceiving me during my failed attempts to communicate with them; my absurd and exhausting masking, trying to fit in and be normal. In principal, my ‘problem’ is an aspect of myself that is so fundamental to my being that it might as well be something as mundane as my hair colour, my height or weight, my musical preference, my shoe size; I begin to see it everywhere, and yet it remains an aspect of ‘unfairness’ that still doesn’t seem to be being talked about. I wish people were as interested in me and ‘my lot’ as they are in other topics of equity, but I don’t think it’s ever going to happen. Perhaps we’re not as interesting. Perhaps there aren’t enough of us, or our difficulties are not regarded as sufficiently serious. Perhaps we’re regarded as being too difficult to fix.

It’s a bit of a downer to finish up on, but it really is soul destroying. My problems just don’t matter really in this climate. There are other, more worthy causes to focus on, people who have been denied a chance at a research career, or who have been systematically removed from that particular ladder in one way or another. As I’ve said before, it’s really not a competition. We all have our problems and we should all be as helpful to one another as we can be. However, I suppose I’m really just trying to get across, to those few who might read this, just how cripplingly, crushingly, lonely it is when you don’t have any of these groups to support you. When no-one speaks your language. When there are no rallying cries for allies to support your cause and fight to give you a fair chance. When no-one actually understands you. When even raising these issues raises questions of attention seeking or blaming inadequacies on other people. I feel horribly isolated, but I’m not really allowed to express myself, if I actually manage to work out how to do that, because there is always someone else with a more righteous and visible problem. The first time I met and conversed with someone like me, from the realms of geoscience, not so log ago in fact, I honestly nearly cried. In true autistic fashion, I spent quite a few hours afterwards playing my preferred musical instrument obsessively, such was my joy.

At the risk of appearing militant, I am so, so utterly exhausted by the need to pretend that I’m not who I am. It’s so easy for other people, with the best of intentions, to tell you that you must embrace who you are and love yourself, but I don’t think the world is quite as accommodating as we’d like to think.

#3 The People

People are scary. That’s the bottom line for me. People are unpredictable, unfathomable, and peculiar things that ultimately pose considerable danger to me, albeit of the mental variety rather than the physical. For as long as I can remember, I have observed a pronounced divergence in how I handle other people relative to the majority of my peers. Other people seem able to quickly understand one another, to figure each other out with little stress, read each others body language, gestures, facial expressions. They seem to all be speaking the same language, to be aware of the same innate ‘rules of play’, or enjoying the same in-joke. Then I come blundering (very quietly) into the fray, with as much understanding of subtle social politicking as a potato, albeit a potato with a reasonable vocabulary. It quickly becomes painful as all parties involved begin to realise, at varying speeds, that something’s not right here; there’s something ‘weird’ about this newcomer.

“Why are they so clunky?”

“Why are they looking everywhere but at me when talking to me?”

“Why did they just grab the conversation and drag it in their own direction?

“Are they being rude?”

“Why are they not saying anything?”

The problem is, being able to communicate and interact with people is a key skill for Higher Education (as well as life). To participate in education, and the social processes that run alongside it, we need to be able to understand each other. My own difficulties in communication during my undergraduate degree essentially crippled me by limiting my ability to tap in this aspect of education, which was not quite as flexible then as it is becoming now.

Things or People

I generally prefer things. That’s not an exaggeration, I genuinely do prefer inanimate objects, generally speaking, or at least, I find it infinitely easier to form emotional bonds with the inanimate than with the animate. That’s not always the case, nor is it entirely fair; I have in the past derived supreme pleasure from relationships with other humans, albeit only a few, and those (very few) inspire emotions in me which I am characteristically unable to understand or describe – they’re just good. Indeed, for a long time I struggled immeasurably with the sensations of desperately needing human interaction, despite the absurd difficulty I experience when trying to communicate with other people.

Nevertheless, I suppose there must be something comforting about the idea of a thing that will not change, will not leave or do anything unpredictable, and will almost certainly be where you left it when you return to find it. People don’t do that, they think, they change, they move, they can get angry or upset with you for being rude, ignorant, selfish, or arrogant. I think most people take some enjoyment from learning about other people, figuring out what makes them tick, where they’ve come from, how they got here – they seem genuinely curious. I don’t want to write myself off entirely (because it makes me sound like an awful person), but generally, I think this sort of task would be so tediously difficult and mentally exhausting for me, that I’ve long since written it off and lost interest. Put me in a room and I’ll derive far more enjoyment in exploring the objects and shapes in it than I would trying to interact with and understand the people. It would be much quieter too. Perhaps I do myself a disservice; I don’t hate other people. I suppose I just prefer to let them do their thing while I do mine quite separately, and if they recognise the great gulf between us and still try to reach across and interact, then more oft than not, I’ll be quite open to it – I’d probably appreciate it in fact.

When I was younger, I had almost obsessive tendencies with some things, nothing more than trinkets really, not because I was trying to replace some kind of human interaction, but because they were linked somehow to an important feeling, from a specific moment in time, which they somehow helped to preserve. This continues to this day, in a rather silly and lesser way, despite my age. I often find it very hard to get rid of anything, usually because I cannot help but attribute some emotion to it. I transpose onto the object the feelings that I would experience in that situation. It could be literally anything, a piece of paper I wrote on 20 years ago, a pc monitor I used to use, a pair of knackered old shoes:

How can I throw these old shoes away? They’re not fit for purpose but we’ve been through so much together. Don’t I owe them the opportunity to have a peaceful retirement?“.

In a terrifyingly childish way, I might, in this example, imagine how sad the shoes would feel to be cast aside after they have served their purpose, and that would make me sad. I can genuinely be moved to tears by this rather tragic anthropomorphism, far more readily than I might if someone were explaining to me some tragic circumstance of their own. For most of my life, my empathy has been restricted primarily to the inanimate, although I am learning, itself a rather uncomfortable process (you could probably imagine the Grinch here). On the most basic level, I don’t want to make things sad, but I am a rational scientist – I know the shoes are just made out of leather and incapable of emotion. And yet, here we are; the shoes are back in a safe place so that they can be happy and loved, and their secured happiness brings me happiness, or perhaps staves off the unhappiness. I can’t begin to explain it – I suppose there is just a part of my brain which is, to all intents and purposes, somewhat defective, or at least misguided. It presumably doesn’t help me in any way on an evolutionary level or otherwise, it doesn’t seem to serve any purpose. This form of emotional attachment has been, and will no doubt continue to be, incredibly debilitating at times, caught as I am between the logical and the absurd, with the absurd clearly possessing the upper hand.

Me vs. Everyone else

I’m quite an analytical person really. I spend a great deal of time thinking about my experiences (dare I say reflecting? – I abhor the word but can’t say why, it just makes me cringe), and I pride myself on knowing my own mind. The minds of other people however, are as foreign to me as quantum theory is to a disgruntled badger. This immediately creates a bit of a standoff between myself and the rest of the world; I know how I work in intricate detail, but I haven’t the foggiest how to predict other people, or understand their motives. In recent years, I’ve taken to rationalising this, if only for my own comfort, by turning it on its head and telling other people “to me, you are the weird ones”. It’s an interesting and helpful perspective, and often seems to give them pause for thought, but it’s true – I suppose everyone is normal to themselves.

So how on earth does someone survive when they’re surrounded by people they can’t even begin to understand. I came to the realisation, quite recently actually, that in my case it was by acting. It probably won’t be a surprise to hear that I hate and fear acting, at least in the sense of school plays and the sort of awful roleplaying exercises that crop up in modern training sessions. I can’t do it and the concept fills me with abject horror. I appear to exist quite firmly in the moment, and the notion of pretending to be something with other people who are also pretending, and more importantly who know that you are pretending, makes me want to curl up into a ball of the deepest, darkest, densest cringe. Nevertheless, there appears to be a certain type of acting which is acceptable, and this is largely a form of social imitation –

“I saw Person X talking to Person Y in this particular way, and it had this result, so I will try the same and it should have the same effect”.

I don’t actually have to own these skills, I just have to look like someone who does”

I’ve noticed, for example, that I change my speech pattern, my confidence level, perhaps even my accent (my accent is an absolute mess, but that’s a story for another day), to try and accommodate my social surroundings. I think the word echolalia is used to define at least some of this. It’s not even conscious, I’ve just picked it up along the way as some kind of coping strategy. It can be quite embarrassing – I hope people don’t realise I’m imitating them and, in-so-doing, highlighting their own mannerisms, speech patterns, or even my perception of their social standing.

The easiest way to picture it, I find, is to picture a somewhat inept chameleon, trying to blend in as best they can with their surroundings, but not quite being able to do it successfully. Perhaps the colours aren’t quite right, or the transitions aren’t sharp enough, but bless them, they are trying (and exhausting themselves in the process). It’s a method which has taken considerable experience just to reach ineptitude, but it’s all I have.

What to do?

I don’t think there’s any way out of this particular problem. The fundamental difference in the way someone like might perceive the world relative to someone else is just that – fundamental. Nevertheless, completing a university course is an inherently social process, and I would argue that some of the classic components associated with Geoscience-based education (e.g. field trips) make social interaction within a cohort much more important than it might be in other areas. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing; the comradery that forms can be very rewarding if you can tap into it. So how does one find one’s place? I suppose my advice, entirely uninvited, to anyone who feels like the above description could apply to them in some way, would be:

  1. Remember that this takes experience, and that takes time. ASD is, to the best of my knowledge, linked to delayed development, not an absence of it. The more time you spend dealing with these difficult situations, the better you’ll get at handling them. This will take time, depending on the precise make-up of your own mind, but it is coming.
  2. Respect and accept yourself. You are who you are, and you don’t have to change who you actually are. It’s more like learning a second language which you can use when needed, whilst retaining your own beautiful mother tongue. In my experience, it actually makes it all the more special when you have an opportunity to speak your own language to someone.
  3. Stay in touch with the ones who respect you. Spend your time and energy on the ones who, to use an example of my own, understand and don’t draw attention to you when you’re rocking back and forth, stimming, or otherwise behaving in ‘peculiar’ manner (see above). They’re the good ones. Don’t waste your time on anyone who belittles you, or in any way uses you, just because you need or want the interaction.

I suppose the final point is mainly aimed at those who don’t feel that they belong to Clan ASD, and relates to what I believe (in an appallingly soppy way) is the universal cure for many problems relating to inclusivity, beyond just ASD – basic human kindness. If you don’t fit into the world of ASD, then just being kind and accommodating of our eccentricities can make the most extraordinary difference. If you see someone who’s struggling socially (for any reason really, not just ASD), and if you are able to do so, go and give them 10 minutes of the time you would have spent with your friends. Encourage them to talk about themselves or their work; in my case, I can talk much more comfortably about myself because that’s who I know. It could appear entirely trivial to you, but you could end up making their day, week, or even month. You really could.

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#2 The Field trips

Field trips are a fundamental component of geoscience-based curricula in higher education, as well as geoscience research. It’s not explicitly geoscience of course; there are other areas which make use of field trips, in the physical and social sciences alike. But I think they are so deeply ingrained in geoscience that they have become part of the subject’s soul. There are some who would tell you that you can’t be a real geoscientist unless you conduct fieldwork. I don’t agree with that; it seems like the sort of thing I’d have heard from the mouth of the old man asking deliberately obtuse questions to upset younger presenters (see #1 The conference), although I have heard such things from much younger mouths.

My experience of fieldwork began as an undergraduate. For clarity, I’ll handle my experiences of fieldwork as a teacher elsewhere. When it came to the smaller trips to relatively local areas, I actually found them quite easy to manage. Being outside actually reduced the ‘social claustrophobia’, if only by virtue of the sudden expansion of my local environment. There were still some concerns of course; each more trivial in their outward appearance than the last. The initial arrival prior to departure, scheduled for a very specific time and resulting in the general amalgamation of people milling around, inevitably made things quite uncomfortable, but as soon as I could get onto a coach and settle in to my little piece of somewhat protected space, I’d be happy. Even when the time came to get up and de-coach, a lot of the time we were having our collective academic hand held – it was only first year undergraduate after all. We were very much in the early days, being shown things for the first time.

I remember there was always the fear of being asked a question, which could of course force me to have to demonstrate something practical while the entire world watched and judged, a problem which was significantly less likely within more ordinary teaching environments, especially back in the days when traditional lectures were so much more prominent in education. And then of course, there was the fact that field gear could be very uncomfortable. I don’t think many people enjoy having to tog up in field gear, but I generally wear clothes made out very soft things like intricately-woven fairy eyelashes and cotton wool, with the labels cut out, and almost exclusively with bare forearms, just to avoid sensations which I really don’t enjoy. The necessity of wearing fully-covering waterproof plastic was deeply uncomfortable, especially when you were limited to the cheapest, leakiest waterproof imaginable. First world problems eh? If the best you can come up with is “I don’t like things touching my forearms”, some would say you’re doing alright. Others would say “you’re a dick” or “man up!”.

Residential Trips

Another major aspect of field trips which caused a degree of stress was the arrival of a residential field trip. I’d been on such things before, but only as a child. Back then, the problems were slightly different – how am I going to use a shower when that involves me being naked and I can only be naked at home? Now things were a little different; my newer concerns were more along the lines of how to go about sharing my space with other people. Quite often this sort of trip would involve relatively cheap, communal accommodation to keep the costs down; makes sense to me. But that meant that the sort of alcohol-fuelled socialising that typifies the vast majority of 18 to 21 year old university students would no longer be taking place far off in a student’s union, far from my dimly-lit, music-filled island of student accommodation. Now it was going to be very much localised on my doorstep. I was very lucky; I was adopted within my first year of undergraduate studies by a group of very kind and understanding, deeply extroverted people who seemed to accept what I was, and how I work, looking past my eccentric, unusual, probably rather embarrassing, and no doubt deeply self-destructive behaviour. I believe they were shielding me, as a few people in my life have, and to some extent defending me outright from the crueller elements of my cohort, acting very much as much older and wiser siblings despite our similar ages.

It was with this merry band of gentlemen that I more often found myself during field courses, just happy to be part of the group, which made the more day-to-day aspects of the trips much more bearable, if not outright fun. Here were people who had the patience to involve me and actually seemed to enjoy my presence, not as a court jester to provide entertainment, but as a individual who was genuinely part of the group, albeit a peculiar one. However, there were inevitably instances where their idea of a good time diverged notably from my own. There was no shortage of alcohol. There were, on at least one occasion, ladies involved, whether local ladies encountered somewhere in the area or ladies from the cohort or teaching team itself. There were undoubtedly some drugs involved, but I don’t really understand them now, so I certainly couldn’t comprehend them then (just not cool enough I’m afraid). I really didn’t have the skill to even be present during such events – I just wouldn’t know what to do. But nor could I escape. I had nowhere to go, and I couldn’t leave the accommodation unless I had somewhere specific to be travelling to. Somewhere to travel to and be present in. A target. It’s just one of the unwritten rules. I remember, for a long time as a child, I had to do everything in fours. For example, when walking, every transition in surface, from tarmac to a different type of tarmac perhaps, had to finish on a fourth step so that the new surface could begin with a first step. If that meant having to take two or three absurdly quick and short steps to ensure adherence, and in-so-doing making oneself look utterly ridiculous, so be it. It was just an unwritten rule that had to be followed. So I had to just had to sit on my bed or in my tiny room and amuse myself with a book, or one of the many eccentric activities I used to do to fill my time (they’ll come up at some point, no doubt). That bit wasn’t so much fun. It just felt like being a child surrounded by adults, but I suppose ASD is a developmental condition (if I’m using the terminology correctly), so I am probably, at my current age, at about the sort of level of ability and confidence that my colleagues were then.

Overseas Trips

I had never been abroad before. My parents had never been abroad either. My mother is terrified of flying, and we were never really well-off enough to afford overseas holidays. So when the time came for me to tag along with a cohort of geoscientists as they made their way to an airport and then on to a plane that took me further away from home than I had ever been (by a considerable distance), I was understandably daunted. I very much clung to my band of merry men, relying almost entirely on them and trying to follow their example, very much as a goofy younger sibling might. I don’t know if they knew, but I suspect they did. Then came the biggest problem of all; language. I’ve never been great with languages; I’ve always preferred to delve into languages that no-one speaks anymore, if indeed ever. I’d studied French and German in my childhood, but my unfortunate and somewhat unique route through secondary school had reduced my practical French to asking for a steak, and my equivalent German to a pronunciation of polizeiwache that I still enjoy very much. Imagine the stress on a poor British muppet with the social skills of a particularly dim-witted house plant when they encountered someone with whom they cannot even converse in a single language. I hasten to add that I was clearly the problem in this scenario. But the idea of trying to communicate with someone when they cannot understand your words, no matter how clumsily you employ them, was truly terrifying. I know now, with experience, that a lot of time you can actually communicate one way or another despite a language barrier, particularly with the application of humour, but that’s decades late.

There are, like many parts of my life, a great many happy memories that I derive from these field trips. I think that’s more or less the case for everyone who gets involved in them. There is a camaraderie to it, in which, despite the efforts of those few individuals who saw me only as an opportunity to poke fun, I was able to play a part. I may have been the weird relative from the side of the family that no-one really talks about, but I was in the family. There were also a great many low points. I’ve done a great many stupid and dangerous things when the crushing reality and inevitability of my situation came to the foreground of my conciousness. I personally find nothing quite as depressing as being reminded of my peculiarity. I’ll say it here, and no doubt at many points moving forward, it’s like everyone else knows some inside joke that I just wasn’t privy to, or indeed capable of understanding. I think that will always be the case. The internal management of the above situations was utterly exhausting, and rested atop the physical exhaustion of working in the field. I’ve been very lonely and very depressed on field trips, far from home, in an environment which some part of my brain is constantly telling me is incredibly dangerous, surrounded by people who often want to help, but also need to go about the world in their own way and cannot be expected to change just to accommodate me. When I try to imagine what it’s like from their point of view, which I rarely try to do, I realise just how far away we are from each other in the most fundamental aspects of how our minds perceive the world. It looks like it would be much more fun to be like they are.

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#1 The Conferences

Academic conferences struck fear into me from the very beginning. The idea of being obliged to present your, potentially rather early-career and somewhat dubious, research to hundreds of experts with whom I would almost certainly struggle to communicate (academically and generally) made me want to curl up in a ball and hide, preferably somewhere quiet and dark. By the time I was required to attend my first conference, I’d already been teaching undergraduates for around a year, as a demonstrator and as a demonstrator who had been given some opportunity to deliver lectures and run practical classes. But this was different; at least with undergraduates it was possible to convince myself that I was one step ahead of them. I could assume a suitable persona, bluffing my way through with an act, a. facade of normality. A room full of academics was a very different matter. I desperately applied for a poster presentation to stave off the inevitable oral presentation. When my plan worked, I remember spending the entirety of a poster session standing on the other side of the room, observing my poster and any visitors from afar, wishing I have the social skills to stand boldly by it and discuss it with strangers, as my peers were doing. I was happy to spend all the time in the world writing it all down and designing a poster, but the style of communication demanded of me by this particular style of dissemination was simply beyond me. In the presentations, I remember seeing an older gentlemen asking deliberately blunt and obtuse questions to the speakers, targeting the youngest presenters and treating them as if they should be on par with Professors of Geology at the most renowned universities in the land. Nobody really seemed that bothered by it, it seemed to just be the norm. What would I do if I ended up in such a scenario?

Within a few years, and having forced myself to present orally at least once, I became steadily more disenchanted. It became clear that I simply didn’t have the skills required to play a role in this form of communication. Everywhere I looked, small clusters and cliques formed, people laughing as old friends and keenly discussing all the amazing, fantastic things they had done and would yet do, and how they could help each other, to the benefit of both science and everyone’s careers. Not I though. Even my friends and colleagues might grow bored of my difficulties in the end and disappear into the heaving crowds to find their ‘academic fortune’, and who could blame them for that? It is an important experience for them too, after all. I would stay in the corner, wishing I could be a part of it, and yet terrified that someone might try to communicate with me and embarrass us both by forcing me to wield the clumsy blunt instrument that is my social capability.

On those rare occasions when I found myself speaking with a complete stranger, I encountered a recurring theme from my life. Most people (but not all – there remain a few pleasant and relaxed conversations to which I cling) go one of two ways following initial contact; they can either find your efforts to communicate amusing, or they can simply recognise you as someone of no particular value to them and move on. It’s a decision you can see people making quite quickly once conversation starts, perhaps my fumbled communication, slightly slurry or irregular speech, or eccentric and confused mannerisms are slightly comical to them and so they humour me, perhaps even pitying me. Alternatively, you can see them recognise that they have made a mistake and they desire simply to move on from this curious individual and their sillyness – “there must be someone more important I can go and talk to”. The end result is that you either feel very childish, or very small and insignificant. I remember presenting to a small room of experts at a foreign workshop/conference – it was clear to me that many (but not all) in the room were wondering with some amusement why an apparent 15 year old with an absurd British accent had been allowed to get in to the room. It was my first international conference on my own – I had travelled alone and every conceivable thing that could go wrong had done precisely that. I remember never feeling so small. As always, I tried my best to integrate but it just wasn’t possible – I was just too strange. I ate my food quickly each evening and escaped to my room to get on with some work, afraid that I might otherwise find myself trapped with someone who wanted to communicate with me and, in-so-doing, provide an excellent opportunity for me to embarrass us all. When I was obliged to attend a social event, I was so deliriously happy when a well known scientist toasted my name in response to finding out that my teetotal-ness had earned him a free drink; I was just happy to feel part of the group briefly. Pathetic really, isn’t it? I remember fondly a gentlemen at the same conference who really went that little bit extra to talk to me and put me at ease. I don’t really know what he did differently; perhaps he just had experience. I really try to remember the good experiences as much as the bad; their faces fade away but the sensation, the overall feeling remains in my memory.

The Social Events

And then there were the dreaded conference social events, another stark reminder of my utter inadequacy. Every time, I would look at myself in the mirror and convince myself that this was going to be different. I would come out of myself; I would be charming, witty, friendly, and have fun, like everyone else. I would change. And yet, with ever-increasing certainty, I would find myself almost immediately trapped in a terrifying cacophony of baffling sound and potential social interaction. I recall vividly the sensation of attending a post-conference quiz and hearing the dreaded words “we’ve split you up into random groups to encourage discussion”. Perhaps the fear of enforced interaction was worse than the interaction itself, but inevitably, as my colleagues and peers who didn’t really understand the problem would move off to find more alcohol and a dance floor, the fight or flight response would start to creep in. I would find myself becoming increasingly agitated, annoyed, if not enraged, that I had forced myself to be here, silently weighing up the options of remaining or fleeing the scene at some speed, and fully aware that both would require a degree of the spotlight focussing upon me, even if only self-perceived.

I have never understood dancing. It honestly remains, at best perplexing, at worst anathema to me. Imagine my horror when I realised that technically, the success of my career could be significantly affected by my inability to understand this concept. Compound this if you will by considering my similar confusion at the consumption of alcohol, which leads me to be teetotal on practically philosophical grounds rather than for health, religious, or moral reasons. How could I possibly make all these contacts, engage in this ‘networking’ that was so clearly benefiting my peers. It was clear; I was doomed.

The COVID revolution

There is very little that is good to be said about COVID, and I speak as someone with a deeply personal score to settle with the virus. However, when the academic world began to panic and try to find a way to continue their conferences in spite of the virus, we suddenly started having conversations that would have been laughable even a year before. It was suddenly conceivable that conferences could be held entirely online. My curiosity piqued. Surely now, not only would I be spared the experience of travel, itself riddled with potential difficulties, but I could now present from the safety of my own personal fortress of safety and solitude (home), there would be no need to struggle through the potential horrors of the conference social event (which I am doing a grave disservice to – many people worked hard to create such events and this should not be dismissed by the specific needs of one little moron).

I attended my first online conference. There remained some anxiety about how to communicate online, but once I got past the technical side of it all, it suddenly made more sense. From my sofa and laptop, I could undertake the virtual equivalent of standing by my poster and waiting to see if anyone would turn up to talk to me. Somehow, the playing field seemed to be levelled, but I don’t really know why. Is it just the difficulty of transmitting one’s extraordinary charisma across a laggy video feed that brings people down to my level. Or is my increase in confidence to blame? Perhaps the technical provision of an immediate get-out clause, the virtual equivalent of running out of the room at some considerable speed, plays a role. If I were to find myself in a difficult situation, perhaps with the sort of individual who wants to explain to me precisely why I should have cited three of their papers on an entirely unrelated subject if I ever expect to be taken seriously, it would be technically possible to simply disconnect and leave them to their ranting, perhaps citing some technical problem.

If nothing else, I think there has been a considerable shift in a positive direction. It’s not all about me, and there will be plenty of reasons to reinstate face-to-face conferences when the time comes, but I hope the experience may have opened some peoples eyes to at least a few of the potential benefits for inclusivity that this approach offered.

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