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How to fail to notice your autism when you’re actually autistic

To avoid anyone, including yourself, wondering for even a millisecond that you might be autistic, whether as a result of others’ observations of you or occasioned by your own self-reflection, it is really helpful if you could be born in a decade that means you will reach well into your childhood before the internet arrives. To be completely safe, I suggest you aim to be born in the late sixties, so that you can progress all the way through adolescence and well into your first marriage before you have ready access to social media and any Wikipedia entries that might lead to you stumbling across a list of traits that describe you perfectly. I might as well get out of the way now that you should expect your first marriage to fail due to the stresses of dealing with young children and your fumbling through a relationship without an intuitive understanding of other people.

If you can, make sure that, as an infant, you hit all of the normal milestones of physical and mental growth; walk on time, talk on time – that kind of thing. You can push things a little with weird anxieties and fears, because all children have odd phobias of one form or another and it will just be put down to your personality starting to develop. Crying into your mother’s hand for instance when on the way to playschool a motorbike passes by suddenly will simply be regarded as sweet. Talking of playschool, if you pretty much fail to notice the other children, hammer pegs into holes for ten minutes and then complain about being bored, you’ll just be seen as shy and boring.

Whilst you’re at primary school and failing to be challenged sufficiently by the subjects being taught, developing a strong interest in a subject that fulfils the expectations of the prevailing gender stereotypes of the period is a great cover for an autistic special interest. Boys should consider collecting football sticker cards or top trumps cards (note that an actual interest in football is not necessary here; simply collecting the cards and enjoying sticking them into the book is perfectly adequate). Other hobbies like electronics and astronomy are perfectly fine too. Girls can choose from any number of creative “arty” pastimes, things to do with history (but avoid wartime periods unless they are prior to the industrial revolution, as mechanised wars are seen as too much as in the domain of boys) or of course any of the “boy” hobbies in which case the simple expedient of declaring themselves a “tomboy” will easily throw people off the scent. Both girls and boys should be careful with algebra and calculus as a pastime though – I nearly got discovered by recklessly and visibly pursuing this and founding “Maths Club”[1] at secondary school. You can spend hours at a time being absorbed with categorising the materials associated with your hobby, making storage cases for them etc. Just be careful not to be seen “lining up objects” as this is a “red flag” that will, many decades later, be remembered by your parents and make your eventual diagnosis as an adult far too easy. Keep your bedroom as tidy as you like though, and, if you like, write a software database cataloguing your hobby materials and achievements; the diagnosis process hasn’t cottoned on to these as Restricted and Repetitive Behaviours, yet.

As you age through childhood absorbed in your “charming” and “so clever” or “so creative” hobbies and thereby avoiding testing the limits of your social skills, beware of the approaching and inevitable time when “social demands exceed limited capabilities”. There are several ways around this obstacle, all of which depend on the simple strategy of avoiding too much socialising. One that worked supremely well for me was to relocate from the town to an isolated country cottage when I entered my teenage years, and to attend an all-boys school. I could happily go home every day, finish my science and maths homework before tea, and absorb myself in hobbies without any risk of encountering other people my age who might have shone any kind of light on my quirky and awkward social skills. This strategy also removed any chance of an encounter with a teenage girl who might have shone an even brighter light into my self-absorbed and socially-uninterested soul, until I went to university and was able to conduct a long distance relationship with a girl from my home town, again successfully hiding myself behind the excitement of meeting only occasionally.

Avoiding socialising in the way that I did had a second bonus, in that I was rarely in a room with more than two or three other people at the same time; the exceptions being school classrooms and assembly halls, and school discos. So I was never tested in my ability to hold conversations in the presence of chaotic background noise or many other conversations; school classrooms and halls had enforced levels of quietness, and school discos had music too loud to talk over.

Note: appropriate behaviour at school discos is to lean against a wall with your arms folded across your chest for comfort, or become absorbed with the design of the loudspeakers and enjoy standing as close as possible to them and thereby enjoy having your chest vibrated by the bass. This helps to avoid any contact with other people at such events.

It is by no means certain, but it is possible that in your late teens you will find yourself invited to a teenage party or two. This might prove hard to resist because there will be music, alcohol, and other people there some of whom you might find sexually attractive. Don’t worry too much; you can pass unnoticed at these by the simple expedient of getting drunk, which is a cover and excuse for almost any type of behaviour. Also remember that all of the other teenagers will be either too busy with each-other, vomiting, or at least drunk enough to forget their own names and will hence certainly forget your inappropriate social foibles.

Later teenage years are a brilliant time to hide, as those around you will be very happy to leave you alone if you stay relatively quiet. One tip, as this will probably be in the 1980’s, is that CB radio is a great pastime that will allow you to indulge your technical interests as well as start flirting with the opposite sex, without having to actually meet any of them. Of course, this also keeps you away from potential love mates of your own age too!

Once at university, you will of course cease to be observed closely by anyone who knew you as a child, and all of the other people your age will be going through their own journey of discovering that there are people in the world who have different beliefs, cultures etc and will just number you and your strange ways amongst the new-to-them categories of people in the world.

If you could make sure that you sign up for a course with lectures that are timetabled from nine to five, five days per week, you’ll maintain the ability to avoid socialising when you’re not drunk (see earlier about being drunk being a great cover). Engineering, medicine, law are all great choices.

You might run into a bit of trouble in your third year, when your colleagues are all going for “interviews” for jobs. One way round this is to avoid planning anything, hoping that the universe will “sort something out”. When this doesn’t happen, simply jump onto one of the PhD research programmes that no-one else wanted to do (the PC way to put this is “specialist field requiring unique skills”). That will give you another three or four years of breathing space. Five if you follow up with a post-doc research placement.

The good thing about those, nearly, 10 years of working alone in research is that you will become really good at – yep – working alone. You’ll be seen as a “self starter with initiative and passion” and can then snap up a job somewhere in a tech firm employed as a wizard. It doesn’t really matter what your discipline is, just that no-one will understand what you do but will know that it’s really important and you’re very clever, and that you should be left alone.

By now you should be noticing that there’s a kind of pre-made map that most people’s lives tend to follow, and you’ll feel obliged to follow it too. After education and early employment comes marriage, house-buying and child rearing. This will be stressful. It will involve dealing with other people, filling in lots of forms, and, eventually, going to and even hosting parties for toddlers high on smarties and apple juice. There will be noise.

But, not to worry; none of this will necessarily shine a light on your autism, because a) everyone hates children’s parties and b) if you’re male you can hide in the “dads are useless” meme that will be well established by the time you have young children. Appearing uncommunicative, socially awkward and inept will be almost expected.

As I said earlier, you should expect to get married more than once. Going for “days out” that involve herding children running in opposite directions in various excitable moods, whilst trying to have “quality family time” and maintain a grip on the organisation and logistics of the day will exhaust you into an almost unlovable mess. But, again, many first marriages go this way and, if you get to it quickly enough, your divorce will be history by the time the internet arrives and anyone has chance to think “Wait a minute ….”.

So, what do you do when the internet arrives? How do you avoid noticing your autism then? Fear not, because you will now be so exhausted by life that you will be knocked sideways by one kind of mental illness or other. If you’re really lucky you might get more than one. What this means is a) you will lose your sense of self esteem and self knowledge, b) you and your family will have an explanation, of sorts, for your behaviour and mood, and c) you will get a form of “treatment” from your GP. This will make you feel looked-after and give you something to focus on that isn’t anywhere dangerously close to finding out what’s really at the root of things. In fact, you’ll think that the process has come to an end and all you can do is sit it out until the therapy and/or medication takes effect.

This will keep you going for a couple of decades. You might have several periods of extended sick leave due to your mental health issues. These will replenish your overstretched social, sensory and executive function capabilities just enough for your to carry on for another few years and repeat the cycle. Remember to lean on the “husbands are useless” meme when your memory fails to prompt you about anything that is important to other people (birthdays, anniversaries etc). Marriages will re-form, kids and step-kids will grow into young adults, and here is where things might get tricky. All of those restaurants that you’ve avoided because you can’t bear the brash lighting and the handing out of children’s menus and colouring pencils at the entrance will suddenly be replaced by ones that, on paper, will sound an awful lot more appealing. Ones with softer (or at least colourful and pretty) lighting, music that isn’t the theme from “Postman Pat” on a loop, food in colours other than beige, and alcohol. This is dangerous.

Why is it dangerous when it sounds such a hoot? That’s precisely why of course. It *does* sound a hoot, and you’ll be happy to go along. And then you’ll notice that there’s too much talking going on for you to be able to process the words coming out of your partner’s mouth only nine inches from your ear. You’ll notice your anxiety levels rising for no discernible reason, and you’ll be at a loss to understand why you drove home as if you’d remembered that you’d left the bath taps running. This might very well lead you to Google “Why am I like this?”

Unfortunately, you’re a bit on your own now as I’ve all but run out of advice. Something that worked for me, or at least gave me another year of failing to notice my autism, was the diversionary tactic of noticing my dad‘s autism! This allowed me to spend a year trying to persuade him that he should get a diagnosis, whilst I was busy being an all-round good egg at work and unknowingly running at the 110% effort (did someone say “problems with interoception and alexithymia”?) that would lead to an autistic burnout.

Of course, once you do eventually notice that you’re actually autistic, it will take another couple of years at least for you to convince yourself that you’re not making it up whilst you wait for your diagnosis. But that’s another story.

1. I’m aware that I’ve broken the first rule of Maths Club


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