Part 9: The Road to Damascus

Hello, and welcome back to The Autistic Writer.

As I write, my city Sheffield has gone into tier 3 measures for the pandemic. I was scrolling through social media this morning, and found a BBC report explaining the science of why Covid-19 is a particularly dangerous virus. On the comments and reactions section, several hundred people had responded to the report with laughing emojis. I simply don’t have the words.

It’s been an up and down week for me. My anxiety levels remain high. I start taking the new meds today, and as I understand it, they will take a while to have an effect. Fingers crossed that they will be beneficial, and make my life a little easier.

Real life has got in the way of my writing a bit over the last seven days. Sometimes important stuff comes up and you just have to accept it, so I’m not getting bent out of shape over a slightly lower output this week. Having said all that, I have to guiltily admit that I missed one evening’s writing session because I chose to watch my football team, Sheffield Wednesday FC, get beat on TV. Moving on…

A couple of days ago an autistic colleague of mine at work came to me and said, “Does noise bother you? Like, does it really cause you a problem at work? And all the pointless chit-chat people are doing in the background?” This led to an animated conversation about difficulties with sound processing (which I talked about last week) and also our bemusement at how we just want to get on with our jobs, and don’t always understand the polite conversation of neurotypical people in the workplace.

On the subject of sound processing difficulties, a different colleague said something to me the other day, and she hadn’t quite caught my attention first, so I didn’t process the sound. I asked her to repeat it, and this time I heard her, but I could not in any way mentally process what she’d said. I just didn’t understand it. It might as well have been Greek. I asked her to repeated it again, and still I was struggling. Eventually, she parsed it out for me and I got it. Why did I struggle so badly on that one bit of conversation? It was because the context, I suspect. What my colleague had said to me was something completely outside the context of our normal conversations. I could not mentally associate the subject matter with where we were and what we were doing. This was a major eye-opener for me; the first time I had actually understood this particular aspect of my sound processing problems. Fascinating. Although, embarrassing and frustrating having to ask someone to repeat something so many times.

This week, I will be covering…

Aberrations: An update on how the latest novel is progressing.

The Aut Life: How I’m trying to manage my life and recover from the autism-driven depression and anxiety I live with.

The Aut Files: The Road to Damascus. My experience of the massive life-context change that occurred when I realised I was autistic, and a partial answer to the question raised last week; how could I have got to the age of 54 with all my difficulties, and not have realised I was autistic?


As I mentioned, my output dropped a little this week, but I’m not worried. Things are progressing well. I’ve typed 3,360 words on the story this week, and completed chapter 40. There’s one element of the story that has cropped up that I think is going to need some serious work to get it how I want it, but that’s a problem for the second draft. All in all, it’s good.

The Aut Life

Being back at work has firmed up my daily routines, and routine is good for me. It means I have less time to read and write, but it means I am out there in the world, engaging. Being out there engaging is not something I enjoy, but I understand I need to maintain the ability to do it, so I’m glad to be back at work and functioning. Having said that, more and more these days I find my mind drifting to my aim of retiring and moving to the east coast, getting a house by the sea, and spending the rest of my life writing books and walking on the beach. That dream is currently 5-7 years away, but I’m working hard on ideas to accelerate that timescale.

I finished A Question of Time, the audiobook from Scientific American. This is right up nerd alley for me, and I love reading this high-end physics stuff. I enjoyed the book immensely, and learned a few things. On the downside, some of the articles were repetitive, but you’re going to get that in a collection of articles on one subject. Worst of all though, the narrator was horrendous. One of the worst narrating voices I’ve come across on an audiobook – the only reason I kept going was the amazing subject matter.

My latest audiobook is Stephen King’s old Bachman book, The Regulators. I had to read this to complete the link with his other novel Desperation. For those who don’t know, there is a clever connection between the two stories (I won’t spoil it). I’m usually a big fan of Stephen King, but I thought Desperation wasn’t that great (it also had another bad narrative on the audiobook – from King himself). The Regulators starts like a steam train, but for me, the story starts to get a little silly fairly quickly. I’m intrigued to see how the Desperation link plays out, though. This book does have one of the best narrators I’ve ever come across. He is so entertaining, adding so much life to the story that it’s worth listening to just for his performance.

I’ve started The Irrational Ape by David Robert Grimes on Kindle, which so far has been a great read. It puts me in mind of Stuart Sutherland’s old masterpiece Irrationality, being a run-down of how humans tend to think badly and make bad decisions. Well worth the effort, as long as you can cope with having a long hard look at your own irrational thinking.

Also, I’ve started AE Van Vogt’s legendary science fiction classic Slan. This is a book I’ve been vaguely aware of since childhood, and have often meant to read. It got a mention in Steve Silberman’s Neurotribes, which prompted me to finally giving it a go. I’m only a little way in, but I’m finding it oddly underwhelming so far. I’ll see how it goes.

The Aut Files

The Road to Damascus

I want to start this with a kind of story. I want you to imagine you’ve gone to the opticians for a routine eye test. You’re not expecting any problems. Everything seems to be going well, until the optician takes you through a brand new type of test they’ve started doing. She’s got some electronic gadget, and is scanning your eyes with it intently…

“Hmm,” she says, in a tone you don’t quite like. “We need to discuss these test results.”

“Okay,” you say, with a tremor in your voice.

Soon, you’re sitting in the opticians office.

“Your test indicates the presence of a condition called chromojestitis*,” the optician says.

You take a breath. “Is it serious?”

She smiles reassuringly. “No, there’s no health risk involved. But it is very interesting, and it might come as a shock to you.”

You’re relieved, but also intrigued. “So what is it?” you ask.

The optician holds up a coloured card. “what colour is this?”

“Red,” you say.

“The colour of blood?” the optician asks, checking your answer.

“Yes, that’s right,” you confirm.

“Hmm.” The optician holds up another card. “And what colour is this?”

“Blue,” you reply.

“Like a summer sky?”

“Yes,” you affirm.

“Then the test was correct,” the optician says. “You have chromojestitis. The first card I showed you, that you thought was red, is actually blue. And the card you thought was blue is actually red. It isn’t only red and blue you will get wrong. Every single colour in the spectrum … you have been seeing incorrectly.”

You cannot believe this; it simply cannot be right, and you explain to the optician why: “Last week, I went to the beach with my friend, and we looked at the ocean, it was so clear… and so blue! Both my friend and I commented how blue the ocean was. We saw the same thing! So how can I be seeing blue as red?”

The optician smiles patiently. “You both saw the ocean. Every time in your life you have seen the ocean, it has been described as blue. So you learn to call what you see blue, like everyone else calls it blue. But you are not seeing what everyone else sees. You call it blue, but what you are seeing is what the rest of us call red.”

Now you get it. You feel like Saul / Paul after his road to Damascus experience; the scales have fallen from your eyes.**

The optician says she has a corrective lens that you can look through, to get an idea what the rest of the population sees. You try on these special glasses, and… wow! You see a completely different world. You’re not sure you like it, but it’s certainly different.

It’s a weird feeling to know you have seeing a different world to everyone else all your life, but never realised you were different. But how would you have realised? You couldn’t! Someone pointed to your lawn and commented how green it was; grass is always green, you thought you were seeing green, but now you realise you were actually seeing orange! And so on, and so on for all the mixed up colours!

What, if anything, does this little fiction have to do with autism?

Some may wonder how a person like myself can go through his whole life, being autistic from birth as all autistic people are, and yet not even suspect he is autistic until age fifty? And in my case, dismissing that suspicion, until finally being diagnosed at the age of fifty-four? The answer to this question has everything to do with the optician fable.

About twenty-odd years ago, I remember confiding in a colleague I worked with that I get nervous about entering a room when unfamiliar people are there. We were about to go into a meeting with people from other areas of the business, and a lot of them would be strangers to me, and my nerves were jangling.

My colleague told me that everyone feels a little bit like that sometimes. And I accepted that. As if she was the person who sees colours correctly saying the sea is blue, I assumed that she was feeling what I was feeling. It was probably the first time I’d ever confided to anyone about what I now know is a kind of social anxiety. And it doesn’t just affect me at work, but in every area of my life.

Here is how it went wrong when I tried to explain to my colleague that day how I was feeling: I had a certain emotional reaction to the situation, and I searched my internal lexicon for words that described that feeling, but which I also felt were acceptable to say in a professional situation. The word I chose was nervous. So in that moment, the word nervous was a signpost to my emotional state. However, I was seeing blue when my colleague was seeing red, because, to her, the word nervous meant slight discomfort in a slightly pressurised environment. But what I was actually feeling would have been better described like this: “I can feel panic setting in. I’m starting to sweat, and I feel frightened, but I don’t know what it is I’m frightened of. My stomach is hurting, and my field of vision has narrowed. Everything seems too bright. My heart is racing. I feel like I have no confidence in myself. I feel oddly vulnerable in a way I can’t explain, kind of exposed. And I already know that when today is over, I will be physically and mentally exhausted by this event, and not fit for anything.”

Now, on the one hand, you can’t really say that to someone in the situation I was in. But on the other more important hand, at the time I would not have been able to give that kind of verbal description of how I was feeling, anyway.

I went into the meeting, laughed and joked with some people, handled myself well, improved my reputation, and told myself I was doing a great job. Later, I got drunk. The next day, I had compartmentalised the worst of how I had felt in a special little boxed-off part of my mind. And if that situation did ever rise to memory again, I told myself that I had just been nervous and that everyone feels a little bit like that sometimes.

I had masked my autism that day in that meeting, like I had been masking all my life. Through my childhood, school and career, there had never been any room for letting on what I was really like. On the rare occasions I did so, it always ended badly. And it wasn’t just the social anxiety I masked. There was social awkwardness that I had to concentrate on very carefully to void screwing things up. I would watch and mimic other people, and use humour I cribbed from TV characters to help get me through. I lived through a battle daily in every kind of relationship I had; friends, family, professional, romantic, just trying to fit in and be normal. And I tried to blot out my anxieties, obsessions and fears with alcohol, sometimes chasing oblivion to a dangerous extent.

The exhaustion of keeping up the mask took a toll, which led to burnout, and repeated flare-ups of what I was told was depression and anxiety – something I thought I could get better from and move on, like getting over the flu or something. And all the oddness about myself, I would internally deny. I would compartmentalise the worst parts, and the rest I would tell myself was just the sort of thing everyone experienced, like getting a bit nervous sometimes. The only person to ever suggest to me that I was autistic was a very smart and sharp GP, who saw through my mask when I was aged 52, thanks to his background in autism. I had convinced myself I was seeing the world just like everyone else, but that was far from the truth.

Getting that diagnosis of autism was like having a friendly optician putting new glasses on me that let me see the world – or rather myself – in the correct context. Now, the past made sense. The scales had fallen from my eyes.

That’s how I went through life not knowing I was autistic. And now I live a different life, in a world that looks very different.

That’s all for this time. Have a good week, stay safe, and be kind to yourself.

*Chromojestitis. I can only apologise for making this word up.

**I am not religious, in any way, but the Biblical Road to Damascus event is kind of out there in the public consciousness in terms of being a byword for a life-changing event.

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