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Autism: A Social Detective Story

Throughout April, I really wanted to share the stories and experiences of other amazing people who raise awareness and have lived experience of autism. Today is MyAutistic🖤Art!


Recently, when sorting through some old paperwork, I came across a handwritten interview transcript, a tiny snapshot of my twelve-year-old self. I had assumed the role of interviewer; the reluctant interviewee was my 5-year-old brother. This role-play struck me as an odd thing to do. Why would I enlist my brother in an objective semi-structured conversation about his family?

Being a social detective is one way of coping with social confusion. In my twenties I volunteered for a charity support line. I was trained, through role play, in an approach known as ‘active listening’ – a structured framework that would enhance my social detective skills. Each conversation felt like a puzzle to be solved. Listening to other people’s stories so intently felt a bit like rummaging around inside their heads.

I had my first ‘lightbulb’ moment after watching a lecture online by Professor Tony Attwood in my late twenties. Autistic girls, he was saying, become avid observers of other people. Many will go on to have careers in the social sciences; some might become psychologists. I had wanted to be a psychologist ever since I was a teenager, after meeting with a psychologist for the first time. She had introduced me to cognitive-behavioural therapy – another neat framework I could apply to life. Even then I remember our sessions feeling like an intellectual activity. But as life became messier, my frameworks stopped working. Two decades after transcribing that first interview, I received a brand-new framework: an autism diagnosis.

I have learnt from other late-diagnosed autistic women that (self)diagnosis initiates a kind of (re)discovery that imbues memories with new meaning. It comes with new insights and a language that supports a new emerging identity. Experiences that have previously been pathologized (social anxiety, depression) are seen in a new light (sensory processing issues, burnout).

A common misunderstanding in relation to autism is the difference between cognitive empathy (perspective taking) and affective empathy (emotional processing). Challenges with cognitive empathy may be overcome or coped with by learning about others (this explains my enthusiasm for counselling skills and consequent career in mental health practice). On the other hand, affective empathy is heightened for some autistic people – but the emotions aren’t necessarily verbalised. There is a word for this too: alexithymia. Attwood puts it like this: “I don’t know how to grasp the many negative thoughts and emotions in my mind, hold one, label it, and explain it in speech so that you’ll understand.” This has meant my own individual therapy (of which I’ve had a lot over the years) has both challenged and traumatised me.

I remember once reading an article about a charity whose volunteers accompanied autistic young people to the cinema. One boy discovered his cheeks were wet and asked his adult guardian what was happening. He had cried tears for the first time. One method I use to identity and describe emotions is by imagining a scene from a film that corresponds with how I am feeling. There is no better place than the cinema – a safe space for self-expression, where one is moved to tears by moving images.

I am cautious when writing about myself and autism. I don’t wish to categorise or alienate myself. The human condition is as much a spectrum as autism is. Autism explains a lot, but I still ask myself: what is autism and what is me?

The pursuit of self-knowledge, the process of unmasking that it initiates – this is both liberating and exhausting. There is a whole community of autistic artists, educators and advocates who are generously sharing their experiences. Find them. You cannot go it alone.

Thank you so much to MyAutistic🖤Art for sharing their experience of autism! Please follow them on Instagram @myautisticart!

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