Here is a blog I wrote that NeuroClastic recently published.
There is a fantastic breadth of autistic experience available on the Internet. Neuroclastic.com is a great source of insights. Why not check their website out, and have a read of my latest blog while you are there.
You can watch me in my first ever vlog by viewing the YouTube link below, or if you’d prefer a traditional written blog, you can read that instead.
I have decided to go to University. Now then, if Miss Hooper, my very first teacher in primary school heard that news, she might be quite shocked that I am saying this at the ripe old age of 47.
On more than one occasion over the past few decades, I have affectionately cursed Miss Hooper for setting such high expectations for me. Within days of me starting school she informed my parents that I was potential Oxbridge material. A child with my natural academic ability was clearly cut out for one of the top Universities in the land.
It didn’t happen. I didn’t even get close…
So what went wrong?
For a long time I assumed “I” went wrong; my teachers assumed I went wrong; my parents assumed I went wrong. But I didn’t go wrong. The education system simply did not respond to my needs. And this was because of my undiagnosed autism.
Mind you, I can’t think of a single child at school who was diagnosed with autism. This was the 1970’s and no one had yet described the spectrum of autism nor the triad of impairments. And we were still years away from Asperger syndrome being used as a diagnosis.
Right, let’s get back to my school days.
So it’s the New Year of 1978 -I had been to playschool for a year or so and was quite looking forward to joining the big school.
I was already able to read and write – and I already had a bit of a reputation, as I was not backward in informing my playschool leaders when they misspelt my surname. And I was most offended – and I told them – when their response was that a 3 year old shouldn’t be able to spell their surname anyway! You can probably guess how well I was going to fit in with the education system from this moment on.
So here I was about to go to school. I was looking forward to it. I wanted to do some proper work! Miss Hooper, my class teacher, seemed very old to me – I suppose she was almost at retirement age back then – in fact she died earlier this year at the grand old age of 100.
She could be described as an old-fashioned sort of teacher. Strict; slightly distant; very academic and serious. Not at all like the playschool leaders who would happily get involved hands on with the children and cuddle them and play with them and fuss over them.
It was bloody brilliant!
Miss Hooper gave me extra reading lessons and I was allowed to choose books from the junior children’s library, even though I had only just started in the infants. I was even allowed to stay in at lunchtime and do more reading instead of joining the other children outside to play. I very much fitted in with this school system and I was happy to be spending my time there, stretching my brain.
I’d like to point out at this point that autism is a spectrum. That doesn’t mean some people are mildly autistic and some are severely autistic. And it doesn’t have anything to do with academic ability either. Autism is a spectrum because whilst all autistic people share similar ways of processing the world; this manifests in different ways. I was academically bright – yet took a very long time to learn how to tie my shoelaces. I could talk with ease about one of my interests – maths or animals for instance. But I struggled to know what to say to make friends.
For me, it is these contradictions that are the very essence of my autism. The huge expectation from others – and myself – that because I can do this thing very well, I should be able to most other things very well too. I remember a phrase used repeatedly about me as a child. “How can someone who is so clever, be so stupid?” This very negative phrase has taken a lot of shifting from my internal dialogue, probably because I felt it summed me up so perfectly.
I got hold of some old pictures I drew in my first school year and some of my classwork too. I can remember the sheer joy of finishing my work and asking for some extra sums to keep me busy while I waited for the rest of the class to catch up. I remember exactly how I used to think aged 4 when I drew these pictures – I was exactly the same then as I am now. So it’s nice to look back and remember that I was actually quite a sweet, fairly ordinary little girl too.
Have a look at my vlog (about 4 and a half minutes in) if you’d like to see more of them.
I am begining to see how I was starting to look to the other children. I mean – a 4 year old who asked for extra maths – for fun! Yep, my differences were beginning to show…
But no one suspected that this socially awkward, pedantic child with a massive obsession about numbers and animals was autistic. I was lucky in a way because my academic brightness and extremely polite “good” behaviour, masked some of my difficulties. My quirks – as they were probably perceived – were tolerated because I was bright and well behaved.
I was told I was clever – I knew I was clever. I was probably a total pain in the backside because my need for accuracy, order and consistency, combined with my academic ability meant that I would correct people whenever I felt it was needed and not really take into consideration anyone else’s feelings or opinions. However, I was – and still am, a polite person, and very considerate. I would happily correct someone because – goodness me, that’s what ‘I’ would want them to do for me. Surely, they must want me to tell them what they got wrong? And I’d tell them with no malice; no unkindness – just total honesty, straight to the point logic and reason – you know what? – they’d probably find me super helpful. Wouldn’t they?
Of course – this different way of experiencing empathy and interacting with others was not the typical way of my peers.
Let’s skip on a few years to secondary school.
Secondary school was bigger. More people, separate lessons, different classrooms, and a timetable to negotiate.
Things started relatively ok.
But over the course of my 5 years at secondary school, things deteriorated. I’ll share some genuine extracts from my school reports…
Year 1: This is from the Head of Year: “Emma has shown herself to be a pupil of the highest quality… She is enthusiastic and often terribly energetic and excitable about what she is doing… She is clear thinking and responsible and I am sure has much to offer the school in the future… The staff reports speak for themselves. An excellent report”
Yep, there I was. A bright future ahead of me. Lets see what the individual teachers had to say..
Maths – there should be no problem there… Grade A for effort and A for achievement – great, now what did my teacher say? OK, here goes: ”Emma works extremely well in class. She is a little dogmatic in her approach to mathematics, but at least discusses with me any disagreements she has over method!”
Yeah, well. I suppose that sounds a bit like me!
The rest of that first year report was also good. A’s for everything apart from P.E.
That wasn’t a surpirse, I have the coordination of a blancmange! I can remember from primary school how my parents were told that there hadn’t been a single P.E lesson where I didn’t injure myself in some way.
Anyway, lets look at my second year at secondary school…A good performance in all subjects according to my Head of Year. Perhaps a little too talkative.
Yep – drama teacher here says “very talkative but pleasant with it”.
Mmmm. Spanish: “Emma is a lively character, perhaps a little too lively at times for her own good”
French… “Emma’s concentration in class is apt to lapse rather too much”
Science… “Emma does not seem to work to her full ability. She can occasionally behave stupidly”
Actually Mr Hughes, I don’t think you are meant to use the word “stupid” when referring to your pupils.
History next…”Disappointing…lacks depth, Emma must be wary of developing a superficial approach”
Right, so not quite the “pupil of the highest quality” from Year 1. And whilst I was still mostly getting A’s for achievement – my grades for effort were now tending to be B’s.
But, Oh how I wish they knew the sheer amount of effort I had to put in just sitting on that crowded, noisy bus whilst teenagers screeched and sprayed copious amounts of Impulse body spray around; so that I could spend a day in brightly lit classrooms, full of people who were just not like me.
By the third year I needed to be choosing my options for GCSE’s – the new exam that was replacing O levels. I was not happy about GCSE’s. There was coursework required and homework to complete – I liked tests and exams – coursework meant sustained efforts and the ability to demonstrate you really understood something and could apply it across a range of contexts. And I preferred relying on my good memory, and winging it in the exam!
“Emma must learn to pay attention” – that was from my English teacher – and this is one of my favourite quotes ever – “Her ability cannot be questioned; her attitude can!”
And there you have it – my shift from being a bright, lively engaged member of the class, to a child who is perceived as having an attitude problem.
“There is room for improvement” according to the French teacher – I still got an A though, so where I needed to improve, I’m not sure.
Around that time I also remember frequently being told that I wasn’t listening. And I would of course reply that I was and repeat what had been said word for word.
And then… wait for it, I’d be told “Well look like you’re listening then”
So I developed my “listening pose” based on Rodin’s The thinker ….. It also felt nice to do and is still a favourite soothing strategy when I need to calm myself in front of other people without drawing too much attention to it.
“Easily distracted” in Spanish
“Needs to do a great deal to redeem herself” … that’s physics
Here’s a nice one… History “Emma is a highly intelligent and articulate girl with a waspish sense of humour”
Thank you for that, I only didn’t take history as a GCSE option because I didn’t like the other history teacher – he was sexist – and I told him. He said that the girls should help their mum’s with cooking and cleaning in the holidays.
“Fussy and disorganised” …that’s the Art teacher
So I entered the last 2 years of compulsory education. I had chosen my options, which were as science based as possible. I wanted to study medicine and unfortunately I had told my parents and teachers this aged about 7, so everyone was counting on this actually happening. That initial pressure of being Oxbridge material had stuck with me.
Inside, I knew I was different. I pretended to like pop stars and boys like the other girls did, but I didn’t really. I pretended to like make-up but actually found it felt extremely unpleasant to wear. I liked animals and nature and thinking about things and being on my own. And I was the most gullible, easiest to tease, bully or pick on child ever. And I repeatedly kept doing whatever it was that made people pick on me. And I had no idea what it was. No amount of masking my undiagnosed autism, ever really hid it. I knew I was different. Everyone else knew I was different.
But overall, academically I was doing ok- ish. My fourth year report refers to me “having ability but not quite attaining what I am capable of”
I was told I needed to be more disciplined and determined – to get things done on time – to be more consistent.
My math’s teacher was worried about my attitude; yep, so was my French teacher; my physics teacher criticised my ‘forgetfulness’; my chemistry teacher said I needed to apply myself more. The careers teacher was concerned about me being “nervous over using the telephone”
But there were some positives too.. I went to a religious school so R.E lessons were compulsory. I opted for the GCSE called ‘Religion and Life’. It was interesting and there were plenty of philosophical discussions to be had. Mr Paul, my R.E teacher is firmly stuck in my memory. I started secondary school in 1984 – and he suggested we read the George Orwell book of the same name. he welcomed my questioning mind. Here’s what he said about me….
“Emma has so many ideas that the effect can be torrential! I am considering issuing the rest of the group with umbrellas so they can survive the deluge! Actually, Emma is invaluable as a catalyst of ideas and her learning and grasp of religious ideas is very promising.”
That was a nice thing to say about me. But I bet you can imagine how I was starting to feel confused, troubled and frightened. I was still mostly getting A grades for my achievements, but I didn’t look like I was putting enough effort in. I was distractable and inconsistent and forgetful. Some teachers thought I was great. Others thought I had an attitude problem and found me exasperating.
The background to this was of course my autism – my very different sensory processing system that found some noises so painful, it was even agreed by the school that I didn’t have to go in the woodwork or metalwork classrooms. But the impact of my autism was not just academic – yes I was dogmatic, I was distractable and so on. But I was also bullied mercilessly. I found fitting in and making friends painfully difficult. I also had some horrific life events to cope with that were secret and almost unbearably painful to cope with. My life outside of lessons was horrendous – and none of those teachers knew.
In my fifth, and final year, the teachers seemed more positive about me. Probably because I did well in my mock GCSE’s. My report comments are mixed, but so so many of them are describing a very typical autistic girl.
Listen to this positive one: “Emma has an occasional tendency to gallop off into the sunset in the pursuit of an idea that attracts her, but which is not strictly relevant. But I suspect that is just the way she is. A super student and a lovely person”
My confidence in my cleverness was diminishing and my physics teacher describes how I underestimated my own ability.
My chemistry teacher refers to me being disorganised and “not averse to stopping him mid-flow to clear up any point that has not been made clear” – I’m not sure if that was meant as a positive or a negative. Either way, it’s pretty autistic.
I was feeling relief I think that school would soon finish, and I could leave. I planned to take A levels in a College of Further Education – a much better setting for me. The teachers tended to drop the dark sarcasm in the classroom once you got to call them by their first names, instead of Sir or Miss.
So I sat my GCSE’s. I did well. I went off to take science A-levels – but as the college staff reported, I did not cope well with the transition. I tried A levels a second time. But no. Education just wasn’t working for me. If you have a read of my blog about how I learn – and the difficulties this causes my teachers, then you’ll understand more about how the combination of sensory, social and teaching factors just don’t work for me at all.
So we skip forwards 30 years and I’m off to do my PhD. I’ll be a doctor – but not the medical surgeon I had planned to be. My PhD is about neurodiversity and employment.
And this is because I have been successful in my career. Being a catalyst of ideas is useful. Being nervous of using the telephone is still problematic, but where my skills are valued, colleagues are often – but not always, happy to make accommodations. My differences can be an asset. I have an appreciation of the world being a far more complex place than I did as a child. I still call people out when I need to – I’d still tell that history teacher he was being sexist. But I’d be more diplomatic with my maths teacher, and I certainly wouldn’t tell him he was “wrong” just because his way of working out a maths problem was different to mine.
I got hold of these old reports when I went to see my family in early September. I didn’t even know they were still in existence. I wondered if my autism would be apparent when I read them. Judge for yourself.
I struggled my way through school, without knowing why. Surely a bright, talkative girl would be successful? But she wasn’t. Well not in the way school expected anyway.
Usually in life, I have been most successful when I have played to my strengths, and other people have played to my strengths.
I’d like teachers to think about the bigger picture when they are writing or thinking about pupil’s “stupid behaviour” or “attitude problems”. Neurodiversity could be behind it. Especially when you view the bigger picture and see the pupil’s strengths as well as the issues. These characteristics often create a picture of someone who experiences the world differently – and that can bring innovation as well as challenges.
Teachers also don’t always know what goes on outside of the classroom either, and the impact of these things on a child too.
School age Emma was academically bright, full of ideas, disorganised, forgetful, distracted. She had a tendency to go off on a tangent, to question and to say what she thought. She was – and still has, nervousness around using the telephone. Still accident prone when it comes to doing P.E. Still can’t even be in the room with certain noises, smells or lighting. At times still socially awkward.
Unfortunately, school put me off learning. Put me off making friends. And put me off myself, if truth be known.
Our son is home educated. He had a fantastic primary school experience but once we saw that some secondary school teachers still used the same old sarcasm, still viewed difficulties with writing, copying from the blackboard or having the correct equipment at the correct time as “behaviour issues”, we decided to educate him ourselves. And we are all thriving because of it.
Dear Doctor, Dentist, Hairdresser, Kindly Neighbour reaching out to touch me during conversation…
I may like you, I may not. It doesn’t matter. This is MY body. I do not have to give you access to it.
Please do not presume you can touch me – whatever your motives or profession.
I may ask you to touch me, I may ask you stop. Please respond with respect.
If I react by pulling away, asking you to stop, or acting in any way distressed then stop immediately.
Do NOT ask if I’m OK. I’m clearly not and it is not for me to justify why, it is my choice. Instead consider what you can do to make this easier for me.
Ask me if you can touch me or tell me what you are going to do.
Give me time to process that and wait for me to agree before touching me.
Do not tell me you will be quick; it will soon be over; or it doesn’t hurt. Do not keep going when I say stop. These actions are disrespectful at best and abusive at worst.
Maybe I don’t like being touched by other people because of how my sensory processing system works – many autistic people don’t. Maybe it’s because it triggers memories stored deep inside my body – of abuse, pain and trauma. Maybe I just don’t like it. Maybe one day it is OK and one day it isn’t. That is none of your business. I don’t need to “get over it” so that you can touch me. I don’t have to dissociate so that you can touch me. I don’t have to put up with it so you can touch me. You just need to take my lead because it is my body.
If you are reaching out physically to connect with me emotionally and I don’t reciprocate, then thank you for wanting to connect with me. Please don’t take the reaction of my body pulling away as rejection. Please find a different way of connecting with me that works for us both.
I do not need to give a reason for not wanting to be touched – however, please consider that every person you meet has an inner life that you may know little about. Autism, sensory processing disorder, PTSD, trauma, abuse. Or perhaps they just don’t want to be touched – that’s fine too.
Make no assumptions about how I wish to be touched. There is no hierarchy of body parts that you can have freer access to than others. It is all me and it is all my body. You don’t know how I process the sensation, and you don’t know how I perceive your touch. If I feel violated, frightened or under threat, your motives are irrelevant – telling me you won’t hurt me is irrelevant. Showing me you won’t hurt me by stopping IS relevant.
“Non-vascular plants tend to be small, but some grow quite large”
That was one of the last pieces of information I remember hearing in a classroom. It also gave the kiss of death to my academic endeavours at that time.
I had wanted to study this particular ecology course for years and finally took the opportunity following redundancy to enrol on a course. It was mostly practical – hooray! It was topic based – even better! And it was my absolute favourite subject, and I already knew masses about it – I’d be surrounded by other interesting mature students and we’d spend loads of time outdoors in the field and minimal time indoors – what could possibly go wrong?
What went wrong was that my way of thinking, learning and understanding was completely incompatible with the course providers way of explaining, teaching and describing.
What would have helped me when the lecturer described non vascular plants, was an example, a diagram, a photo or something to get my head round so I understood what they meant.
What actually happened was this conversation inside my brain…
“NON-VASCULAR blah blah blah SMALL, SOME blah blah blah LARGE”
I started rooting around (pardon the pun!) in by memory bank for a seed of information (sorry!) that I could grasp hold of to help me clarify what the lecturer meant. Imagine the mental equivalent of searching in your laptop files for a folder named “non vascular plants” and the computer processor whizzing through every available file one by one to find the best match.
At that moment what I actually needed was to press pause and make the teacher stop while I searched for information. I don’t possess a speedy processor like a computer has, and that’s not how education works. You can’t put people on pause, it would disrupt them and everyone else. So I did the next best thing…
I took a deep breath, braced myself for looking stupid, and stuck my hand up. I tried to catch the teacher’s eye, but without having to make eye contact – not an easy task! Fortunately she noticed me and I asked “Can you give me an example of a non vascular plant please?”
And she said…”I’ll get on to that in a minute” and carried on describing the various attributes of non vascular plants:
They don’t have special tissues for carrying food and water (xylem and phloem)
They tend to be smaller than vascular plants
They don’t have seeds
They prefer water
So now several things were happening inside my head.
A voice from my youth was telling me “See what you’ve done? What a stupid question. Everyone else knows apart from you. You need to sit still, everyone hates the person who asks questions. Even the teacher. See, she won’t even answer you”
So I had a bit of a mental battle with that unpleasant voice, along the lines of “It’s fine to ask, you need an example so you can create a visual image in your head and get on with learning. Stop giving yourself grief. You are 46 not 6. You are not at school. You know this triggers you. Relax. You’ll do fine”
I was aware that the teacher was still talking but I was actually too engrossed in my internal battle to know what she was saying.
I was also aware of the fly buzzing (interesting) – the lights flickering (ouch!) – the pencil tapping (annoying) – the chair scraping (aaaahhh that HURTS!!!) – the breeze through the window (nice) – the bird outside (I wonder what it is and what it’s doing?) – the breathing of the woman next to me (creepy) – the minty breath of the man across from me (yuck, I hate kissing people who chew gum, it’s icky and sweet and minty cold – I hope I don’t have to kiss him – get a grip Emma, why would you have to kiss him?!) – keep your hand still Emma – DO NOT do that hand thing you do to calm yourself down – take a drink of water instead (you’ve overpoured it and it’s running down your chin stupid – don’t think about the horrible cold wetness) – the brightness of the whiteboard and the reflections on it (don’t even look!) – the people walking past (FFS don’t they know I’m trying to concentrate) – sit up straight ( that’s ‘A VERY IMPORTANT THING’ in education, the ability to sit on a chair properly) – when did I last pee? I hope I don’t need to go. Do I need to go? Goodness knows, but what if I do? (panic) – the ceiling tiles don’t match (why don’t they match?) – keep your hands out of sight Emma, for goodness sake don’t calm yourself down (they already know you are thick because you don’t know what “large” means – don’t let them see you are weird too) – the picture on the wall is crooked (why??!!!) – and the myriad of other things that were of absolutely equal importance to my brain at that moment – and always, always are.
And I was still trying to work out what was meant by “Non vascular plants tend to be small, but some are quite large”. My brain was thinking…”Small like a tennis ball? Or an ant? Or something else? Empire state building large? Or an elephant? Surely not, what else is large, I wonder what it can be large like?”
I am a visual thinker. When someone says a word, I create a picture in my head. That’s possibly why I am more comfortable in the world of science and tangible things rather than in the world of abstract ideas and fantasy. I can do abstract ideas, but I need to make them concrete somehow. That’s why I love analogies and sharing examples of how autism works in practice and what is going on undercover.
I had no picture of a non vascular plant to use as a starting point. I had nothing to measure “small” and “large” against. Further describing the attributes of a non vascular plant added additional processing demands. Learning that a thing I cannot imagine anyway, has no seeds and no xylem or phloem is asking me to take an unknown and then asking me to take stuff away from it. My brain was ready to pop.
And all this reminded me why me and education don’t work. And my self esteem plummeted.
So whilst I appreciated the teacher’s need to get on with the lecture, I was left floundering…and behind everyone else in the class. If she did go on to give an example of a non vascular plant, I missed it. My urgent attempts to block out all that unfiltered sensory information, soothe the tormented schoolchild in me who was busy reliving the trauma of her early educational experiences, and work out what a non vascular plant could actually look like, got in the way. In fact, it could well appear that I interrupt and then don’t bother to listen to the answer. In fact, I am sure I’ve heard teachers tell me exactly that!
So what could have helped?
Easy. A simple response to my request for an example: “think mosses, liverworts, low lying plants without roots and seeds, non-vascular plants tend to love water” would have been fine.
That would have given me enough to go on.
Or this could have helped if it was displayed on the Powerpoint presentation. Thinking visually doesn’t mean you need to give me a physical picture. It means you need to give me the information I need to create a picture for myself:
Or something like this may have helped me and would have been quicker to process than the above example:
Any of these three ways of giving me an example would have enabled my logical brain to work out how to define “small” and “large” and identify what was meant by non vascular plants. I would have known that the Empire State Building was a bit much because I could have applied my understanding of “oh, it’s something like a moss – of course, if it’s large it’s not likely to be tall because it is not rigid enough” etc etc
So why did I feel a bit thick?
Because everyone else “already understands” what large means in this context. So why don’t I?
I have an open mind, of universal proportions. It is unfiltered and massive and capable of zooming into the atomic level in order to understand something, and then zooming back out again and looking at it from every conceivable angle – plus a few inconceivable angles too! This is why I am renowned for “thinking outside the box”, talking utter nonsense, and coming up with some inspired ideas – and half the time I am not sure which is which. I am not constrained by convention or accepted hierarchies or preconceived ideas.
My world is not only big and unfiltered, it is fluid and shifting and changing all the time. My sensory processing works in such a way that my experiences of sensory information fluctuate. We all experience this – think how much louder a noise sounds when you are scared and alone at night. Or how everything looks brighter when you are happy. My brain needs much more, or much less sensory information to register the sensation than some people do anyway, and this is further affected by everything from my mood, to my health, to the type of environment I am in and how busy, bright, loud and smelly it is.
What I “know” about the world, does change from moment to moment because my reality is chaotic and ever shifting due to the way my sensory processing system works. I create order, predictability and systems to understand things and to anchor myself to. I learn facts off by heart. I match the unknown to the known in order to learn. It is completely feasible to me that “large” could mean elephant size or the Empire State building size.
I have no natural filters, to help me find the “correct” answer, so I use my own filters. They are called “taking things literally” and “logic”. I impose routines and structure to give me that order and predictability that is missing from my world. The more chaotic my world becomes, the more I rely on my filters.
When I don’t have enough information and apply logic or take things literally it can expose truths that others gloss over and miss – I notice things or patterns that are frequently overlooked by other people. It can also involve me appearing to misunderstand things. I may have made perfect sense of what I know – but if what I know is only part of the finer detail, and not the bigger picture, I could be completely on the wrong track.
I struggled through the rest of that day on the course, determined to prove I had what it takes… I didn’t. I had further struggles with following instructions – “go and gather some plant material” was followed by me sneakily watching what my classmates were doing and copying. I knew “plant material” didn’t mean a whole tree but WTF did it actually mean? The trouble with sneakily watching and copying, is it rarely goes undetected. In a school setting it can easily result in taunts of “look at her copying us, do you want to be our friend Emma?” followed by laughter and further mocking. Explaining my way out of that situation by telling my classmates in a completely honest and logical way “no thank you I don’t want to be your friend, I don’t even like you” does not actually result in appreciation of my honesty, or even relief that thank goodness the weird kid doesn’t want to be their friend. It further alienated me from my classmates and made teachers think I didn’t even want to try and fit in.
I got to the end of the first day of that weekend long course, ate my meal in the communal dining hall – further sensory and social nightmares – all whilst desperately trying to convince myself I could do it and I wasn’t a total failure. But I couldn’t do it. I went to bed and awoke at 2.30am and spent the next 4 hours crying and tormenting myself about how useless I felt.
I am sharing this glimpse into a few hours of my life to show how my brain processes things. The way I logically think and the way my sensory processing works. But what I really want people to realise is the impact of these things. I cannot help how I am. It is not a choice. I am not deliberately asking stupid questions, or not listening, or getting distracted.
“Trying harder” adds a further layer of pressure that alerts my senses to scan for danger and my brain to process the sensory information it is receiving in more extreme ways – everything gets even louder or even brighter – or I can no longer feel where my body is and what it is doing unless I look at it. My world becomes more chaotic and I need more structure. I lose my anchors and come adrift and I have to seek clarity and create order. I suddenly need to ask more questions, I become more literal, I need to do more of those things that that regulate me. I can risk the outcome and not do these things, or opt for self-preservation and mask these needs. The resultant masking is a temporary fix that leaves my needs unmet and chips away at my self-esteem and identity.
There is a living, breathing, beautiful human being behind every assumption we make about what autism is or isn’t. My face may lack expression, I may look bored or distracted and like nothing bothers or effects me. But look back at the sheer volume of processing that I am doing to understand a “simple” statement. Look at the additional things I am processing – all those sensory experiences that are clamouring for equal attention with each other. Reflect on how every single one of those sensory experiences has an associated thought, emotion or train of questions to additionally process. Think how complicated and painful and distracting and distressing that may feel, how hard I am trying to cope and fit in. Perhaps you know of autistic children that look like they are keeping it together at school and then come home and collapse from the sheer overwhelm? Consider just how overwhelming it actually IS for them. Feel humbled that they can take their mask off with you.
Do you know what would help in this situation when accessing education?
Autism awareness? Perhaps… A little bit maybe.
Autism training that teaches the traits of autism? Absolutely useless in this situation.
Acceptance? That would be nice – but actually you shouldn’t be accepting that a fellow human being is in this state of distress.
Kindness. Absolutely, but ONLY if you know what kindness means for me.
So what would help me most is for you to recognise that I am a fully human, three-dimensional person, with an inner life as complex as the next person’s. I am unique, I am not lesser, or somehow not taking it in, or unable to understand things. Every single human being is unique. I have explained my experience of learning and each of us will have our own unique preferences, strengths and needs. Adapt and respond to every individual. On a practical level, I need very, very simple adjustments:
An adjustment of attitude. You need to accept that my world and your world could be very different. But each are totally and utterly valid. No amount of adjustments in the form of equipment, support or special adaptations will work if your attitude towards me doesn’t adjust. It’s a reasonable expectation – and a right.
Start small. adjust the environment based on what everyone needs. Encourage people to sit where they are most comfortable. Near a window, facing a door, whatever.
We all benefit from regulating our senses. Do we need all those lights? Can we get rid of some of the background noise? Reducing the amount I have to process with some of my senses gives me a better starting point for learning. Having the option to increase sensory input can help too – let me move when I need to. So how on earth do we balance everybody’s needs if we are all different? Remember we are whole people. Maybe I don’t like noise when I am working but you do. You like lots of light and I hate artificial lights. So I wear my headphones and you sit by the window. Autistic people are frequently great practical problem solvers. We can help each other. And as a whole person, I recognise that my senses do not work in isolation. If I cannot control the noise, I can regulate my other senses, it still helps. If I am autistic and have got as far as being sat in your class, I will undoubtedly be a resilient person with extensive experience in handling adversity and distress. Ask me about me.
Please answer my questions. If someone is bold enough to ask, they clearly want to know. Do not assume that because it is not important to you, it may not be important to them. You may be enabling them to continue a train of thought that would otherwise derail.
Allow students to photograph or record lectures. That way they can replay them or feel comfortable in distracting themselves or regulating themselves when they need to, without losing track.
Recognise different learning styles. I absolutely must have information in the right order so I can build up a picture. Some students need to do things practically, others prefer listening. Recognise your own biases if you are a teacher. I stayed away from describing learning styles in depth in this blog, because it is more important to focus on each individual’s needs.
Lack of understanding does not mean lack of intelligence. Ability in one area does not mean ability across the board. Difficulties in one area do not mean difficulties across the board.
Ask people what they need. Ask in a way that is practical. If you say “what do you want?” It might sound inclusive and as if it is offering me choice, but how do I narrow down what the options are? The question is too big. Instead ask me which is preferable between option a and option b. Learn from the experts – the ones with lived experience.
It can take me time to process things. I may have a question about something you said five minutes ago or five days ago. Build in time for this and make it perfectly acceptable to ask. It does not mean I am slow or not paying attention. Remember how much extra stuff I am processing just by being in that room. If you ask me something, give me time to process it. Don’t ask me again but in a different way because you assume I haven’t understood. You will double my processing, not reduce it.
And remember that each of us has a life full of past experiences that will undoubtedly have played a part in how we feel today. Stepping into situations that highlight our struggles is a risky business. Respect that.
I haven’t been back in a classroom since. I left the course deeply disappointed. I was the child whose parents were told when they dropped 4 year old Emma off on her first day of school – already reading and writing – that she was destined for Oxbridge. It never happened. I have a photographic memory and love learning so sailed through my GCSE’s with no effort. Two attempts at A level courses and two attempts at a degree – the second attempt lasting less than an hour! None worked out for me. I found employment and worked my way into a successful professional career. I even completed a MA successfully via distance and work based learning. I am writing this blog to share some insights that may help people. I also need to process what all this means for me as I embark on my PhD research. Again by distance learning, but this time with me owning my autism and asking for support and understanding upfront. My research is about employment and neurodiversity. Unlike education, the world of work is a place I have largely thrived. But for many autistic people that is not the case. This is where I hope to use my positive experiences to change things for other people.
My son started playing an online game called Clash of Clans, about two years ago. He had his first mobile phone and he and a few mates downloaded it.
We had a good talk about online safety and set about learning how to “chat” with other players. In fact I googled a list of text speak and abbreviations so we could decipher all the BRBR’s, CoC’s, and TIA’s.
But the chatting bit wasn’t for us and he convinced me to download the game too and join his clan. I thought it was a good idea so I could a) keep an eye on his safety and b) ‘get down with the kids’ – LOL – and find out what the attraction was with gaming.
Then there was c). Unintentionally I found I quite enjoyed playing, and it provided lots of opportunities for mother and teenage son chats about life, the universe and everything.
The game involves starting from scratch with a base that you can gradually build up with troops of different types, and defenses and resources. You take part in battles and as you win more loot and gain more experience you can upgrade your base and all its various archers, giants, wizards and dragons. You win more money and increase your magical abilities. You can spend your resources however you wish and shape your base accordingly.
And being a game, once you have accumulated enough experience and resources, you can level up. And with that comes tougher opponents to battle and higher stakes.
It’s very much like life. My son mocks the players he refers to as “rushed”. The ones who use real life money to upgrade their weapons while they are still novices and learning their battle skills. They are easy opponents to beat. Their bases look flashy with all the newest kit, yet weak and simple to penetrate and win an easy victory.
It’s a strategy game too – just like life. You can run at your enemy willy nilly, throwing your best bombs and shooting your best arrows and sometimes you’ll taste victory. Or you can plan and strategise and choose your battles and sneak in and win that way – or do all that right and step on a hidden bomb and lose!
There are no sure fire ways to win every battle. Preparation is important, but no amount of preplanning and picking your best troops will predict your next battle. My son and I often discuss strategy and technique, and the various analogies our game playing has with life. As a respected level 3 Master who reached those impressive heights with no cheat codes or spending of actual cash, I am worth listening to!
As an autistic person I frequently like to do things in the same way each time. It provides me with much needed predictability in this chaotic world I find myself in. It means I am wonderfully reliable, solid and consistent. It also means I can be metaphorically shooting my level one arrows when I’m fighting level six battles.
I still have my favourite old attacks and defenses now I’ve leveled up, but I have to ensure I adapt them to a more sophisticated opponent. If I keep on using my winning strategies from my early playing days now I’m in the Master league, I’ll look amateurish and rarely come out on top.
But I like my winning strategies from my early days. Life was simpler and enemies easier to predict. I want to keep using those winning moves. They served me well. They got me where I am today. Without them I would not be here now. But they don’t win me many battles anymore.
I’ve levelled up.
I need to learn new skills and different moves.
My son and I talk about how as autistic people this can feel tough. It’s like starting again from scratch each time we level up in life. Much harder than a computer game.
But with it comes new techniques, more resources, fancier strategies and greater opportunities.
We may be prone to keep on doing things the same way regardless. Sometimes I’m asked why I do things in such complicated ways, or why I always do things the way I do even if it’s not that effective.
Partly its the old message of “try harder” taken far too literally. Partly it is because it works – or rather it worked. But life sometimes moves on whilst I’m still doing the same old thing.
Sometimes I level up in life and don’t upgrade my skills in line with my progress. Mostly it is because it takes lots of conscious effort to work things out. There is always a logical reason for why we do things. Why change that? Doing things the same way is predictable and introduces a comforting, familiar pattern into an unpredictable and ever changing world.
We should be as proud of our life achievements as we are of our gaming ones. Finding that the old techniques no longer work could be a sign we’ve gone up a level. New opportunities are open to us and new resources are at our fingertips. It’s worth trying out some new moves.
I have no energy for masking at the moment and know that this means I will either appear totally unstable or I’ll muck up everything I have worked so hard to create.
It makes me want to give up as there seems no point.
Situations remind me that no matter how hard I try, how well I mask, and how fantastic my skills are – I am still really crap at being a neurotypical person. But I’m not neurotypical so why does it matter?
Because autistic people are not valued as whole people. My skills can be appreciated but the rest is still measured in deficits.
People assume I want to be more normal, or I’ll somehow learn to fit in. I don’t. I won’t.
I want the whole of me to be appreciated.
I often find neurotypical people dishonest, vague, inconsistent and tricksy. I still love many of them though. I accept I find those aspects of their persona difficult and confusing. I may not even like how they do things sometimes. Perhaps they occasionally annoy me. But I still love them and wouldn’t dream of writing them off as lesser, or as a broken version of me.
We are all perfectly imperfect human beings.
That’s why I’m fed up of being autistic today. I’m tired and overwhelmed and have no fight left. I get more tired anyway because my brain does so much more processing. On top of that I have to put all that effort into fitting in so I’m allowed to have a go at normal stuff like work and friendships.
My brain rarely rests. My body is usually alert to danger and ready to react.
Most people don’t realise this, and when I end up having to tell them so they’ll stop unintentionally hurting me, I feel humiliated and reminded of how the world is not designed for me.
That’s why I’m fed up of being autistic today.
So I’m taking it easy. I’m cuddling my dog. I’m taking care of myself and hoping tomorrow will feel better.
Self-care is the only way. I have a capacity for joy that others may never achieve. I seek out those sounds that reset my soul. I notice the patterns the rain is making on the window and trace each tiny droplet until it has my full focus. I read those comments that remind me I am not alone. I move in ways that reminds me I am in here – I have a right to be alive.
I rest, I recharge. I don’t plan my next battle. I remind myself that this neurotypically biased world is not of my making. I look at the birds and the trees and I reflect on the words of Mary Oliver. I remember where I belong.
Simply put, “video chats mean we need to work harder to process non-verbal cues like facial expressions, the tone and pitch of the voice, and body language” according to Gianpiero Petriglieri, an associate professor at Insead. Paying more attention to these consumes a lot of energy. “You cannot relax into the conversation naturally,” he says.
Many of us will also spend time awaiting calls; ensuring our technology is working; and that there are minimal distractions. This can add layers of anticipatory anxiety and stress to an already energy sapping process.
According to Andrew Hines, assistant professor at Dublin University, and PhD candidate Phoebe Sun; we can improve our video call experience by scheduling shorter meetings. A lot of what determines how fatigued we become is based on what we are listening to.
The voices transmitted through the internet in real time are unedited and therefore crude to our ears. That is why we can wile away an hour listening to a podcast interview but feel drained after a video meeting – even if we didn’t have to contribute.
Their article describes how subtle sounds such as key tapping and swallowing sounds will be captured and amplified through our laptops or other video call making equipment. Squeaky chairs, eating crunchy snacks and slurping coffee can sound to the listeners as if you are chewing in their ears. Our brains respond to annoying, unnatural and unexpected sounds and force us to focus on them. The ability to filter out information is significantly reduced due to the lack of spatial cues and the loss of our ability to recognise the direction of a noise.
Network delays can cause speech; gestures; and meta-communication – all those “Mmmm”, “Uh-huh” and nods of agreement, to become out of synch. Again, this adds to the video call experience being exhausting.
So what has this got to do with autism?
I enjoy writing about shared human experiences. From my very first blog back in March, I recognised the parallels the social impact of the Covid-19 pandemic may have with some autistic people’s everyday experiences.
I am sure that those of us taking part in frequent conference calls will understand the phenomenon of “Zoom Fatigue”. Those of us who are also autistic may well draw analogies with our usual face-to-face social interactions. I’d like to share my personal reflections on this to offer an insight into a world you may not have considered…
When I am in a face-to-face meeting I experience all the same challenges as many people do on a video call:
I cannot filter out background noise or recognise spatial cues.
My hypersensitive hearing causes me to focus on all those annoying breathing noises, the slurping of drinks, and the screeching of moving chairs – with equal intensity.
Awaiting meetings is stressful. This anticipatory anxiety boosts my already high levels of sensitivity even higher.
Eye contact feels overwhelming and painful. But unlike a video call, I can’t slap a post-it note across someone’s face to avoid looking at them!
My brain processes visual and auditory information at different speeds which can cause difficulties and a lag in my understanding.
Knowing when it is my turn to speak takes effort.
Is it any wonder that I am so exhausted after ‘normal’ social interactions? My challenges aren’t because I dislike people, or I don’t understand the rules of conversation. They are processing issues.
What helps is the same courtesy and good humour we have on conference calls. And an awareness that this may feel as clunky, awkward and never-ending to me as many of those video calls do!
Sexual consent is a complex topic. As an Autistic person I find it particularly difficult to define as there is no straightforward, succinct, universal definition that enables me to firmly place A,B, and C into the category of “non-consensual” and D, E, and F into the category of “consensual”.
As a mum, I am doing my best to bring up a child who is as safe as possible from potential mistreatment or abuse, and who understands how to behave kindly and respectfully towards himself and others. As my son entered his teenage years, I recognised just how complicated it is to teach someone “rules” about anything, let alone consent.
I went to the dictionary for my first definition of consent: permission for something to happen or agreement to do something. That is a fair enough definition but leaves far too many questions that my pedantically autistic mind jumps on straight away! It certainly doesn’t take into account the bigger picture where people are duped, coerced or threatened into giving permission to have sex. Or to be touched or touch someone else sexually.
My second definition was from ‘The Code for Crown Prosecutors’ – a public document, issued by the Director of Public Prosecutions that sets out the general principles that should be followed when they make decisions on cases. The definition they use is: Section 74 defines consent as ‘if he agrees by choice and has the freedom and capacity to make that choice’. The Code gives examples and elaborates on issues like conditional consent; intoxication by drink or drugs; and reasonable belief in consent. This felt like a more comprehensive definition to me and includes capacity as well as choice.
In my professional background as a registered social care manager, I have extensive experience of the Mental Capacity Act 2005 and how we assess whether individuals have capacity. The Act sets out 5 principles to consider when deciding if an individual has capacity to make a decision (such as consenting to a sexual act) and only applies to adults. The law is very clear that sex with a child is illegal regardless of whether they have given permission. With adults, there is always an assumption that the person has capacity to consent unless assessed otherwise. The Mental Capacity Act states: “a person lacks capacity in relation to a matter if at the material time he is unable to make a decision for himself in relation to the matter because of an impairment of, or a disturbance in the functioning of, the mind or brain.” Some people may lack capacity on a permanent basis, whereas others have fluctuating capacity that can vary from day to day. This could be because they have a mental health condition or are affected by medication for instance.
When risk assessing situations in my professional role, I have found that supporting Autistic people to take positive risks, where they have the same rights as everyone else to make mistakes or poor decisions, is complex. It can be fairly straightforward to identify sexual risk in a person who is vulnerable because of a very low IQ and severe communication problems that means they are unable to weigh up the information and make a decision. But when I am supporting people who are perfectly able to think through complex problems and access the same pubs, clubs and social events their non-autistic peers do, it becomes more difficult. I know from personal experience that my cognitive processing is adversely affected when my brain is having to process excessive sensory information. (For those of you reading this who aren’t autistic, imagine how it feels when you are trying to think about something important and your partner has their music turned up full volume on the radio – that level of not being able to think straight is commonplace for many autistic people all day every day.)
Many Autistic people need far less sensory input than our non-autistic peers do, for our brain to register the sensation – this means that typical background noise, light, and smells may feel intensely overwhelming. Other Autistic people need far more sensory input – this sensory difference is part of being Autistic. The types of venue where people often meet up to form relationships tend to be overwhelming on a sensory level. Possibly not a good starting point for an autistic person. And this is before we even factor in all the social demands, the reading of body language, interpreting whether someone is interested in you or not, or what you may or may not feel about them.
I’d like to take you back to the 1970s and 1980s when I was growing up. I learned about the biology of reproduction as a child. Like many children, autistic or not, it didn’t really make a lot of sense to me at first but following science lessons at secondary school I had a fair grasp of the mechanics of it and its purpose for reproduction.
It was many years before I appreciated that sex could also be fun, loving, exciting, a mutual experience and a choice.
I learned about something else in a school talk, although it didn’t mention sex at all. This was possibly dangerous and disastrous for many children. We watched a film about not talking to strangers who stop their cars and offer you sweets or visits to their house to see their puppies. I had absolutely no idea this was about sexual abuse at all. I imagine that many children would not have applied the messages of this film across other contexts e.g. someone that wasn’t a stranger grooming them for sexual contact.
I learned the playground language of relationships but had no idea of the meaning of some of the terms. Consider for a moment how Autistic people may have a tendency to interpret language literally. I am well aware that lots of spoken and written language has more than one meaning and I’ve learned lots of idioms and metaphors off by heart. However, I mask my autism quite frequently in order to look like I have some sort of a clue about what is going on! If I didn’t, I’d be asking questions endlessly, and I am well aware this can make me appear stupid, inattentive, or naïve – it singles me out as different. I hesitate to say it makes me vulnerable because it is not my fault that there are dangerous people who choose to take advantage of other people. It is their responsibility not to harm people.
I am less bothered by my communication differences as a middle-aged woman, but as a teenager I had enough problems already without adding to them!
Have a think of some sexual terms for a moment – take a step back from what you know they mean and just think about the words – it is ok to laugh about any potential disastrous misunderstandings!. I’ll give you an example to start you off. Words used to describe kissing someone passionately: Snogging, necking, getting off with, making out, French kissing, smooching. None of these can be interpreted in a logical and literal way to help you work out what you are actually meant to ‘’do”. How do you consent to something you don’t understand? Especially when you are putting so much energy into just working it all out.
Many of the girls at school read teenage magazines, and studied and giggled at the problem pages and articles on how to know if a boy fancies you and how to flirt and so on, so I joined in. This was useful because it gave me some proper concrete information on how to have relationships with boys. I wasn’t interested in having a boyfriend but knew it was a normal part of growing up. I didn’t enjoy eye contact or close physical contact and I struggled to read body language and interpret other people’s emotions but at least these magazines gave me some tips.
I worked on how to flirt and how to tell if a boy was interested in me but unfortunately knew nothing about consent and I had absolutely no feelings towards anyone at all back then. It was a purely scientific approach to ‘getting it right’ and not based on what I wanted for myself. In all honesty I had no idea what I wanted, but was desperate to mask my awkwardness and lack of understanding. I had brief relationships and encounters with boys in order to avoid the scorn of my peers by not fitting in.
Of course, if people are having lots of relationships because they think it is what they ‘should’ do, they run the risk of appearing promiscuous. Peer pressure is inevitable for young people growing up. It is also very powerful – as is gaining a reputation as someone who is promiscuous. Autistic people have told me that they have developed reputations and attracted lots of unwanted sexual interest from others because they are perceived as ‘easy’. Instead of it helping them to fit in with their peers, they have felt excluded, labelled and their self-esteem has plummeted further. It can be common for autistic people to continue doing things in the same way, even if they don’t work. I blame this on our society’s focus on “just try harder”. If I am doing X in order to fit in, and it isn’t working, I need to try harder and do X even more!
NOTE: I was going to edit that last paragraph because my thinking has developed since writing it over a year ago. But I shall leave it as it is because it is good to see how you grow and develop as a person… On the surface it sounds OK… However – I no longer believe the narrative of Autistic masking being about “fitting in”. I have explored this in more recent blogs https://undercoverautism.org/2021/07/09/autistic-masking-lets-see-it-for-what-it-is/
Autistic people frequently mask or camouflage for the same reasons animals camouflage – to avoid predation. I act like my peers in order to not get predated. Or in order to take part. I don’t necessarily want to “fit in” – I want to take part as me – but without being harmed, abused and exploited.
Masking is a topic I have written about elsewhere. It plays a significant part in any discussion about consent. I wasn’t really masking my autism as such. For a start I didn’t realise that my awkwardness and differences were autism. I masked my needs. My need for clarity – by not asking the questions I needed an answer to. I masked my need for sensory regulation – by suppressing any desire I had to intuitively move my body in ways that were calming, soothing or helped me to concentrate or simply feel joy. I copied my peers way of talking and acting in certain situations in order to fit in better – mostly I was happy being a loner with unusual hobbies, I had a strong sense of knowing what I believed in and was interested in, but I also knew that if I looked any weirder than I already did, I would probably continue to be bullied and teased. I felt quite sad that people thought there was something wrong with me. My self-esteem was already low because I knew full well there was something different about me. I tried my best but was frequently bullied. This knocked my self-esteem down further. I tried even harder to get it right.
I will recap on the themes I’ve touched on above and relate them to the issue of consent.
Capacity fluctuates. Autistic people often find the world overwhelming, and the more overwhelmed we are, the more difficult it is to make an informed decision around consent.
Autistic people may take language literally. Any topic that is taboo (sex, death, finances etc.) has lots of euphemistic language associated with it that makes it even more difficult to understand. We may not generalise information very easily and therefore not realise that the ‘stranger asking you to go see his puppies’ is referring to a similar scenario as ‘an adult relative or friend of the family asking you to engage in sexual touching’.
Autistic children may try and avoid standing out as different from their peers by copying behaviour, doing what they feel is expected, or obeying adults.
Understanding body language, subtleties in conversation, flirting and whether someone fancies you is complex and easy to get wrong.
Educating people about consent and how to recognise and avoid situations and interactions where consent may become an issue
I have had discussions with my teenage son about consent and never pushed him as a young child to kiss relatives or accept hugs unless he wanted to. He knows that people may feel under pressure to conform in relationships – either to a partner’s requests, or a peer group, or societies expectations. It is a complex subject with no rules to fit all circumstances. My best advice to others has been, if the situation is not clear cut or you are not sure then don’t do it. Outside of a relationship where you 100% know the consent is there then it is better to regret not doing something than to do it and wish you hadn’t. Consent is about having a choice. If it doesn’t feel like you can choose or the other person can choose, then it’s not consent.
Teaching children to do what adults say because they are adults is not a good idea for anyone, let alone an autistic person who takes things literally. It is difficult to teach rules about sexual behaviour and how to spot potential abuse or grooming activity. The only thing I feel I can do as a parent is to be open and willing to discuss anything with my child.
Sex education needs to include more than biology. I believe that people are at risk because of a lack of the right knowledge about sex and relationships – it’s like teaching someone mechanics and expecting them to not get run over just because they know how a car works.
Sensory processing and consent
I was very vulnerable because of my lack of understanding of sexuality. I knew the facts but knew nothing about the existence of desire as a teenager. Our interoception (the sense system that lets us know how we feel internally) is significant in issues relating to consent. I can’t remember having feelings towards other people as a child, sexual or otherwise. I didn’t like or dislike people. I didn’t look at someone and find them attractive. I knew how to behave appropriately though. I was polite, I did what I was told, I obeyed adults. I also tried to “act normal” around my peers. This coupled with my particular interoceptive processing means I can put a lot of effort into getting things right, rather than considering my own feelings. I have autistic friends whose interoceptive processing works in a very intense way compared to my muted interoceptive processing. They feel sensations intensely and frequently whereas I feel fewer emotions or sensations. They too may have experienced issues with consent. Someone like me may not feel any attraction to another person but go out with them because it is the proper thing to do. My friend may feel attracted towards people instantly and passionately and pursue a relationship or sexual encounter without fully considering if it is what they want.
Our other senses play a significant role too in relationships and issues of consent. People experience touch differently. They may excessively seek physical contact or avoid it. Either of these responses can impact on the ability to consent. The person who needs lots and lots of physical contact in order to register the sensation, may invade other’s spaces or touch them more than is acceptable – there is a risk of them being accused of sexually inappropriate behaviour or being seen as initiating sex. The person who recoils from gentle touch because they need firmer touch may be drawn to sexual partners that are rougher. Other senses play a part too – sex is a multisensory experience. Autistic people often process sensory information in muted or intense ways. None of these sensory processing issues are insurmountable in an established relationship – mature sexual relationships are based on partners being responsive and considerate, the difficulties tend to be more problematic when building relationships or choosing potential partners.
Some people cope with sensory overload by shutting off or zoning out mentally. This may increase vulnerability because their capacity for making decisions about consent is reduced.
How do we help people make informed decisions about consent?
Consent is a difficult concept to capture in a universal definition. Capacity to consent fluctuates too, particularly for autistic people who often have atypical combinations of strengths and needs. Someone may have excellent verbal skills and be extremely articulate and able to problem solve a theoretical problem, but struggle to multitask the sensory, social, and interpersonal aspects of relationship building. On first impressions this person may appear completely able to consent but actually he or she is extremely vulnerable.
Explaining your potential difficulties, saying that you are disabled or autistic may be useful (or not!) for getting help when struggling at the supermarket, at college or in work. It could increase your vulnerability in a potential sexual encounter though. A decent person would understand, back off and take their time. Other people may take advantage of your vulnerability.
Denying Autistic people the opportunity to take risks and make mistakes won’t help them develop skills in learning about what they want from relationships. Open discussions using accurate, frank and honest language with our Autistic children, family and friends may help them explore issues and develop strategies that keep them safer and help them make informed choices. Giving Autistic people accurate and explicit information about sex, where they can ask honest questions without fear of ridicule or exploitation in a safe environment is essential. There are very few opportunities for this sadly.
Teaching people the reasoning behind rules may be more effective than teaching rules. We may hear that “Yes means yes and no means no”. It’s quite easy to opt for simple rules when you are a very rule driven Autistic person. This sounds ok on the surface but actually there are lots of times that yes means no. There are even times when no means yes. It is unlikely that you can learn every variable so asking yourself questions about whether this is something that is safe, is legal, is something you may regret afterwards, can be more effective than rules. And for me, the big question is “do I have a choice?” If the answer to that is no, then it is not consenting. Similarly, if my partner does not have a choice then that is not consensual either.
A difficulty with having a rules-based approach can be the inevitable exceptions to the rule. Think about this scenario… I tell my son that he must never show his private parts to an adult. OK – so what about a doctor? A doctor’s OK. But unless I specify that I only mean medical doctors; that you are visiting specifically about your private parts; in their surgery at an appointment and not anywhere else; etc etc. there will always be exceptions to the rule. Autistic people may struggle to place learning from one context into another context. We run the risk of the “Don’t talk to strangers” campaigns from my youth that failed to mention that most abuse is perpetrated by someone you know – and has nothing to do with puppies.
It is likely that people will end up in situations that they wish they hadn’t. Some people will have non-consensual sex. This non-consensual sex could be in the form of rape (as defined by the legal system), or it could be other forms of illegal or coercive sex. The person may have given permission but not technically consented. They may have felt OK at the time but regretted it later. Some people will encourage other people to engage in non-consensual sexual activity, this could be forceful or manipulative – they may or may not recognise the other person’s lack of capacity. The participants may or may not consider whether they were consensual experiences or not. Both partners may be non-consenting. People may consent at the beginning but change their minds. There are far more complex situations than there are simple “this was right and that was wrong” situations. In my professional capacity I have been involved in many, very complex safeguarding situations. Most aren’t black and white.
The complexity may mean it is difficult to apportion blame. Sometimes the fault is easy to identify. The law and public opinion is clear about particular acts. It may be more productive to move away from blame and fault when discussing consent in the less clear-cut issues and move towards the impact of the encounter. How has it affected the person? What can they learn from the encounter to help them be safer in the future? Feelings of guilt may or may not occur relating to any sexual activity.
It can be said that Autistic people struggle to understand the intentions of non-autistic people. To an extent, I would agree. I may experience this as some non-autistic people being liars, full of hidden meanings and insincere. Of course – this mass generalisation is grossly unfair, and as untrue as Autistic people being perceived as blunt, unemotional and rude. The ‘double empathy problem’ theory in autism explains this well. We can all have difficulties in understanding each other, regardless of our individual neurology, but when people of different neurotypes interact, there can be added dimensions to this.
Autistic people are frequently infantilised. Disabled people are often thought of as non-sexual beings. Social situations can be tricky to navigate because of all the sensory processing, unwritten rules and complex protocols that others seem to intuitively know but we don’t. This all adds up to put Autistic people at a disadvantage when making choices. We have the same rights to make mistakes as anyone else. But we need to be on an even playing field.
It may be helpful for Autistic people to learn assertiveness skills and about boundaries. This can help us advocate our needs and reduce the need for masking. Masking often leads to small issues building up into bigger and bigger ones because our needs aren’t shown, recognised or met. Learning to identify what we want and ask for it effectively can be powerful.
Learning about our bodies, emotions and senses is important too. Having a lifestyle where we regulate our senses and emotions as part of our daily life will help us be in a better place for making decisions and choices. For those of us that have sensory processing issues that impact on our ability to consent – we may need to find strategies that work as an alternative. For me, I don’t feel like or dislike or desire towards people instantly. My interoceptive sensory processing is slow and it can take time to know how I feel about someone. If I was single, I would make a strategy for myself that said “don’t have sex with that person straight away even if they say they really like you. Have a few dates first and find some things you have in common”. My Autistic friend who quickly develops intense feelings for other people may devise a similar strategy “don’t have sex with that person straight away even if you really fancy them. Have a few dates first etc”. It’s up to us as individuals to create the strategies that keep us safe and fit our individual lifestyles and beliefs.
Many of my blogs end with a paragraph about us all being human beings and how we should be kind to each other. This one is no different. It is likely that any of us, autistic or not, will find ourselves in situations relating to consent that don’t go to plan. Before we act, we could think about whether we are about to be kind to ourselves and kind to others. It’s a good starting point for deciding if we should consent or not.
I have had feedback about previous blogs where I explore issues like identity and body image. These topics may be painfully relatable for some people. I’d like to share the following:
No one is ever to blame for sexual activity they did not consent to.
No one is ever to blame for consenting and then later regretting it.
No one is to blame for making mistakes or acting in the best way they could at a time when they only had some of the information they have learned since.
There are many reasons for why we do what we do. If you need help or if reading this blog feels distressing then please reach out to someone.
When I searched the internet for a quote that would capture how autistic people experience emotion, I found plenty of search suggestions along the lines of, “Do autistic people have emotions?”. I wanted to get away from the popular type of search results that frequently reinforce stereotypes of unemotional autistic people so went for something a bit more academic and science-y.
There was plenty of research on autistic deficits and research questions were posed about whether empathy can be taught to autistic people. I also found other research into why autistic people don’t experience emotions.
I cannot honestly say that I felt ‘uncomfortable’ – my emotions don’t work like that. But my very logical mind began matching all these search results I was turning up, against the reality of my own lived experience of autism, and the realities of my peers, family, and clients. It just did not fit!
I “know” that autistic people experience emotions and in diverse ways just like everyone else.
So, I decided to see what the NAS had to say (The National Autistic Society – a well-known UK based organisation). They made a few mentions of autism and emotions in various sections of their website, typically in relation to challenging behaviour or emotional difficulties.
Overall, the perception online seems to be that autistic people may not experience emotions, or they may experience them in out of control ways.
Initially I disagreed with this.
However, after reflecting on this all day, I realise that “yes, we can look like that to people who aren’t able to empathise with us”. I personally believe that non-autistic people struggle with empathising with autistic people just as much as autistic people struggle with empathising with them.
This blog is my contribution to the discussion. It describes how this topic works for me. It may not be relevant to everyone else, or even anyone else, but if it creates an interest in what autistic people may be feeling under the surface and a willingness to explore this with them on their terms then great!
I went off on a wonderful tangent looking for a clear definition of what an emotion is. I discovered articles about the philosophy of emotions and the history of emotion too. I found there were evolutional and theological theories of emotions, and all manner of schools of psychology, neurobiology and sociology that added to the discussion. There is no simple definition – the subject is complex and broad and there seems to be no scientific consensus on a definition.
Most simply put, emotions are states associated with the nervous system brought on by all manner of different things, including our thoughts and behaviour.
Currently there are eight senses associated with humans. The five we probably learned at school: sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing. The two associated with knowing where our bodies are – proprioception; and the effect of gravity on our bodies – vestibular. The eight sense is interoception – the sense of knowing how we feel. This includes feeling emotions and feeling bodily sensations like needing the toilet or hunger.
For me to describe how my emotions work, we need to consider my overall sensory processing.
My sense organs work fairly typically. My eyes are very short-sighted, but my vision is corrected with glasses. If an audiologist examined me, they would probably say that I have no issues with my hearing. My sense organs take in information in a fairly typical way. However, once that information reaches my brain, it is processed very differently to that of my typically developing peers.
Sometimes I need more information than most people need, in order to register a sensation – I like a full-strength hug not a gentle one for instance, or I can spin on a roundabout without feeling queasy.
Sometimes I need extraordinarily little sensory information to register the sensation – I can hear conversations in a room down the hall, and a door slam sounds as loud to me as a firework does to my neurotypical friend.
And this is where I would like to introduce you to the eight sense: interoception. It works just like all the other senses. It is not responsible for making emotions or affecting them in any way – just like the ears are not responsible for the noise they hear. Our interoceptive sense enables us to notice or recognise or be aware of how we feel.
If the way our brain processes sensory information is muted in so far as interoception is concerned, then we may not feel emotions, or the need to go to the toilet, or that we are hungry or in pain. If the brain processes the sensory information too intensely, then we may notice every sensation within our bodies, or feel emotions more strongly than other people do.
And just like all our other senses, our interoceptive sensory processing can work differently in different circumstances, or on different days.
Here are some ways that a person who experiences atypical interoceptive sensory processing may appear to an outsider, with my thoughts on what may be happening on the inside:
Doesn’t show emotions (maybe they are having emotions but not noticing them?)
Over-emotional (maybe that emotion genuinely does feel that strong to them?)
Loses their temper for no reason (perhaps they didn’t notice the sensation of becoming angry until it was too late to manage it?)
Moans about every tiny ache and pain (maybe their ‘tiny’ ache feels as painful as someone else’s broken leg?)
Doesn’t notice they have a severe tooth infection (perhaps the pain hasn’t registered with them?)
Won’t learn toilet training even though a reward system is used, and they fully understand what a toilet is for (maybe they can’t feel the sensation in their body that tells them they need to go?)
Has no empathy and doesn’t care about anyone else (maybe they don’t know how they feel themselves, so can’t imagine how others may feel?)
Blunt and insensitive – poor social skills (perhaps they have no personal concept of how unpleasant it feels to be spoken to abruptly?)
Easily led, vulnerable, promiscuous– forms relationships with anyone who asks (maybe if they don’t know if they ‘like’ people, they will politely become anyone’s friend?)
Perhaps autistic people ARE having emotions but just aren’t feeling them? No one would say that because I don’t feel hunger I shouldn’t eat. My care givers would be seen as neglectful if they didn’t feed me just because I never noticed I was hungry – food is a basic human need – everyone must have it.
So how about we look at emotions in that way too? Just because I don’t feel sad or show that I am sad, doesn’t mean I can be ignored when something sad happens. To deny me the compassion shown to my more typical peers following a tragedy, is as neglectful as denying me food just because I’m not hungry.
My personal interoceptive experiences tend towards the ‘needs a lot of input to register’ aspect of sensory processing. Growing up, this gave me the appearance of being aloof, disinterested in people, unemotional and cold. On a good day, I could appear strong, brave, and steadfast.
As an adult, I can still be interpreted in this way but I’ve learned to play to my strengths and there are times when the ability to remain calm in a crisis, keep a level head, and make objective decisions under pressure pose an advantage over my more typical peers.
When I was a girl, I knew I was different. I thought I must be a terrible person for being how I was. I remember despairing over my lack of ‘normal’ emotional responses and wondering what was so very wrong with me. Deep down inside I knew I did care and that I was kind and thoughtful (and my goodness, am I thoughtful – I cannot do anything without thinking it through in full first!) but somehow my experiences, my thoughts and my emotions seemed out of synch with each other.
I can remember experiencing traumatic events that would have made any normal person cry or feel distressed and I felt nothing. And not just because I shut off to those experiences. To my young self I wondered whether perhaps I was somehow to blame for these things? Surely I must want them to happen if I’m not even upset by them?
And like every other human, I am more than a product of my genes and neurology. My experiences naturally shaped me and added to the way I experience emotions. A complex cycle was created: My autism affected the way I behaved in response to sensory information; and thus influenced how others treated me; which then influenced my further responses; and so on…
My interpersonal relationships were different to the relationships between my more typical peers. I struggled to develop the skills that would enable me to relate to others with ease. I didn’t feel things like other girls did and I didn’t act like other girls did. I tried my best to copy and pretend sometimes, but on the whole, I was content being self-contained and kept myself to myself, lost in my own world of music, books, and nature.
I was labelled as unemotional and eventually believed that meant I must be uncaring too. Perhaps I was kidding myself that I was alright really? Perhaps my knowledge that I was fundamentally ok – just different; was wrong?
I feel it is important to recall at this point in the blog, that other autistic people may have the ‘doesn’t need much sensory input to register’ type of interoceptive sensory processing. They may empathise with others so intensely it hurts them. You will see how different we all are, but by viewing our emotional responses as a result of our sensory processing it may make more sense of why that is.
At this point, my blog heads off into a little discussed phenomenon. It helps me explain my emotional responses but is my opinion and nothing more. As I learn more about myself, autism, and the complex science of emotions, my opinion will likely change. This is how it makes sense to me at the moment, based on the knowledge and experience accessible to me at this current time.
Synaesthesia is a perceptual phenomenon in which stimulation of one sense leads to an involuntary experience in a second sense. It is widely documented throughout history.
For me, the acidic green of newly opened beech leaves is the colour of the musical chord A minor. C major is sunshine yellow, G minor is matt aubergine. I only see chords in colours not individual musical notes.
My ability at mental arithmetic comes from my experience of single digit numbers as coloured shapes – I can visually click them together to do sums very quickly.
Synaesthesia explains how some of my other senses experience information that was not intended for them. Hearing in colour is a common example. It comes close to explaining my emotional responses.
I’ve described how I believe I actually do experience emotions, but I don’t always feel them or show them. Just like I may not feel hungry, but my body still needs food. As I’ve developed a greater understanding of myself, I recognise that in fact I have more awareness of my emotions than I realised.
As my self-awareness has developed, I have noticed what happens in my body in response to different stimuli. When I have tried to explain this to some clinicians, their response has not always been accepting, or even inquisitive. Very often my descriptions were interpreted as a symptom of mental illness – delusional in fact. I would prefer to see my emotional responses as a form of synaesthesia rather than my “brain not working properly”. Here are a few of the many examples of emotional synaesthesia that I have experienced across my lifetime. Remember – the emotion is there just like it is for every human, but my brain processes it differently due to my muted interoception – which means I may not feel the emotion in a typical way. This processing sometimes appears as synaesthesia. My sensory processing is frequently muted or over-responsive anyway, but these examples are outside of my ‘normal’.
Sadness – my vestibular processing is affected, and I can feel extremes of seasickness when changing direction or speed on a walk; or fail to become dizzy when spinning at high speed.
Shock – vision becomes pixelated.
Happiness – colours get brighter – especially green, that’s why I love nature.
Stress – vision becomes distorted and objects lose their definition.
Tiredness – hearing becomes painfully acute.
Very sad – food tastes gone off.
I have started viewing these signs of how my brain is processing sensory information as “my” emotions. They are consistent enough that if someone were to ask me how I felt, I could confidently give them the name of an emotion that would match their neurotypical expectation of my experience. This helps them understand and helps me get compassionate responses from people. But it bugs me, because it’s a lie! I don’t feel sad, or happy, or stressed, necessarily at that time.
As practitioners we often support people to identify and name their emotions in order to help them get their needs met more effectively – my account is worth considering whenever we do this. Wouldn’t it be lovely if when someone asked how I felt, I could honestly say ‘seasick’. And they would know me well enough to appreciate that my seasick was the same as their sad. That would really help meet my needs.
I mentioned a key phrase back then; “I don’t feel sad, or happy, or stressed, necessarily at that time.”
I have always been aware of this out of synch relationship between my emotions and thoughts. If I need to process what other people would define as an intensely emotional experience, I can analyse it to the point of understanding it at an almost atomic level, but it will still rotate around my brain for years and not lay down to rest. The emotions can’t be forced. I am no more able to tap into emotions now than I was as a young girl.
I don’t see this as a problem anymore. This is how I roll! I am better able to process experiences now that I accept my atypical way of feeling those emotions. When I experience an emotional event now that I understand and accept the way my emotional responses work, I can still analyse the event to gain clarity and process it cognitively. I can also acknowledge that my sensory responses are ‘normal for me’ and nothing to be scared of or view as a mental health relapse indicator. I don’t give myself a hard time because I’m not feeling what I should be feeling. Sometimes I get the feeling much later anyway.
A recent example is of a bereavement that I experienced in November 2019. My initial responses were logical, practical and helpful. My sensory responses were visual disturbance, taste disturbance and hypersensitive hearing. My initial feelings were frequently related to the frustration of my ordered world becoming disordered through the loss of a key figure in it. I may have appeared unemotional, brave, strong, distant, or inappropriate. In June 2020 I felt sad and I cried for the loss. It properly hit me what the loss meant.
The worse thing about feeling emotions in this way but in a delayed manner is other people’s responses. I can look like I am not coping, or attention seeking, or struggling. Everyone else has moved on from these emotions, just as I am arriving. What I would have loved last month more than anything, is to have had the warmth, compassion, love and sympathy shown to me that was shown towards the people who were grieving like that in November. I appreciate that’s not how these things work, but this was a delayed response not a maladaptive one. Frequently I have not received the support I need from others because my timing is wrong or I have hidden my needs because of how it will look if I bring things up all this time later. Can we be kinder human beings I wonder, by giving people what they need, when they need it – even when it doesn’t fit in with our expectations of timing?