Part 133: Navigating Neurotypicality

Hello, and welcome back to The Autistic Writer. I hope you are all as well as you can be. In this week’s blog, I want to share some thoughts on navigating neurotypical interactions as an autistic person. But before I get into all that, a brief look at how autism has been presented in the media recently – to be specific, the Daniel Geschwind interview with CNN.

Daniel Geschwind is a professor with an unnecessarily long job title at the University of California, Los Angeles. Geschwind specialises in neurogenetics, which sounds like a pretty cool field of study, and which puts him in a prime position to pontificate about autism. He was a major player in the early days of Cure Autism Now, an organisation that merged with the much-hated Autism Speaks. Regular readers won’t need telling that any talk of curing autism is going to be viewed with utter disdain on this blog, and with good reason. And so, it was with some foreboding that I approached Geschwind’s latest pronouncements on autism. As always, the prof didn’t fail to disappoint and dismay.

The CNN interview was billed as an explanation of what autism is, as part of “autism awareness month” – that’s right, no autism acceptance terminology for CNN, just good ol’ autism awareness. The introduction to the interview goes straight in with person-first language before doubling down by describing autism purely in terms of deficits. It’s tough to take. But it’s nothing compared to some of the outrageous nonsense that spills from the mouth of the esteemed professor. I had to check the date on the article, just to be sure it hadn’t originally been published on April 1st as some kind of twisted April Fool’s prank. But no, it appears the professor was being serious when he came out with these gems…

“Everybody is neurodivergent to some extent. For example, if you look at a simple IQ test, a substantial portion of people will perform really badly on one specific item. That doesn’t mean they have problems — it’s just that it means we all have strengths and weaknesses.” 

Oh. My. God. He hasn’t quite come out and said, “We’re all a bit autistic, aren’t we?” but he’s come as close as he can get. This is like a slap in the face for all neurodivergent people, and is clearly incorrect. If everyone is neurodivergent, then the term neurodivergent loses all meaning. It is literally a nonsense sentence. Rather than explain myself what neurodivergent actually means, I’ll quote from the excellent Nick Walker:

“Neurodivergent, sometimes abbreviated as ND, means having a mind that functions in ways which diverge significantly from the dominant societal standards of ‘normal’.” ~Nick Walker, PhD.

You can read Nick Walker’s breakdown of neurodiversity terminology by clicking here. It’s as good an introduction as you can get, although there are some fine points I might debate in a future blog.

Anyway, after making a dog’s dinner of neurodivergence, Prof Gaswind scales new heights of neurocomedy with this spectacular gibberish:

“There are some autistic individuals who just need accommodations and don’t need treatment. There are other autistic individuals who need a lot of treatment. The spectrum was intended to include them all.”

No, professor. That’s not what the spectrum is about. It’s not about a gradation from mild to severe. It’s baffling that someone regarded worldwide as an expert on autism can trot out this balderdash. Geschwind did not invent the term spectrum in relation to autism, so I don’t know why he thinks it’s okay to hijack it and throw it like a stick of dynamite into the already raging fire of public misconceptions of autism.

Geschwind alludes to autism “treatments”, but – hilariously – when faced with the question, “How do you treat autism?” he has no answer except some vague waffle about treatments needing to be personalised.

The Geschwind interview is a great example of professionals in the autism community whose careers and reputations depend on public fear of autism perpetuating misinformation and confusion. Money talks. I’ve skimmed over the Geschwind interview because so much of the claptrap he delivers in it has been covered and dismantled many times by myself, by other autistic people, and by other professionals in the autism field. If you’re new to the subject of autism and are wondering exactly what is wrong with what Geschwind is saying, I can only advise you to read as many of my previous blog posts as you can, and to follow the hashtag #ActuallyAutistic on social media. In particular, read the Words Have Power and 100 Things About Autism sections of this website. If you’re on Twitter, check out my Autism Manifesto. I’m going to leave it there for Professor Gersundheit, and move on to the aforementioned subject of navigating neurotypicality.

This week, I bumped into someone I’ve not seen for a while. I’m not going to name him, and I’m going to change a few things to properly disguise his identity. Let’s call him Kevin. I know Kevin more as a regular acquaintance than a friend. We’re polite when we see each other, and that’s as far as it goes. But we do have a large number of mutual acquaintances, which gives us something to talk about. So when we bumped into each other, we exchanged some neurotypical-style small talk, and then Kevin proceeded to say some quite complimentary things about me, which was completely unexpected. I accepted his praise politely. But then, the conversation took an odd turn…

Speaking about some of our mutual acquaintances, Kevin asked me why they couldn’t be more like me. Whoa. What? I immediately felt uncomfortable, and then somehow, I realised why I was so uncomfortable: Kevin has softened me up with some praise before trying to lure me into gossiping about our mutuals. No doubt if I had agreed with Kevin’s assessment of our mutuals, he would have then repeated that to those very same acquaintances, later down the line. Probably along the lines of, “Hey, I saw Darren recently, and you’ll never guess what he said about you…” Unfortunately for Kevin, I wasn’t playing his game. I made my excuses, and moved on.

I was annoyed with Kevin, but I was quite pleased with myself for spotting what he was up to. In the past, before I found out I was autistic, I had often been manipulated in social or work situations, and tricked into saying things in haste that I hadn’t thought through. This is what neurotypical gossip is like, apparently. If you’re a skilled gossiper, you can navigate this nonsense and come out unscathed. But if you’re vulnerable, naive, or – like many autistic people – just not neurologically designed for this bullshit, you can come to social harm.

Anyway, I spent some time thinking about my interaction with Kevin, and it sent me into one of my introspective spirals. I keep thinking back over the many times I’ve fallen foul of neurotypical behaviour in the past. Many of these troubling events occurred in workplaces, and I still feel upset about things that happened many years ago. So, I’ve decided to tell you all about an odd series of events in which I came out on the wrong side of neurotypicality during my old career as a retail manager. I lasted 28 years in low-level management for a huge, well-known giant of UK food retailing. The events I’m going to share with you occurred more or less in the middle of that career, long, long before I ever suspected I might be autistic, or even knew what autism was.

So, for the story to make sense, I have to give you a little background. I was working in the largest, busiest store in the region, and I was doing quite well. It wasn’t the best performance of my career, but I was delivering good results against relevant targets, and my performance reviews were really good. Then we had a change of store manager. The new guy came in and changed a lot of things. We’ll call this new guy George…

Once George had settled in and we sussed him out, he seriously divided opinion among all other management in the store. And the division was clearly along gender lines. Female managers all said George was nice “once you got to know him.” Male managers disliked him, and felt he was confrontational, or a bully. I watched George from a distance, particularly paying attention to how he spoke to my peers in meetings and in the staff restaurant. He did bully male management (with one exception), but he was always cheery, jokey and flirtatious with female management, with his cheeky grin, wink, and risqué remarks. I found the way he conducted himself to be appalling. I saw him bully one male department manager to tears, and another male manager, who I got on with very well, had to leave a meeting to throw up because of how uncomfortable George had made him feel. The manager who was throwing up was a big, strong guy with a lot of experience, and he was no shrinking violet, so you get an idea of how nasty George was. Me being me – I’ve never respected authority when wielded badly – I soon made an enemy of George, and going to work became a very miserable thing indeed…

I’ve mentioned there was one male manager George didn’t bully. This was Edward (not his real name). Edward was like George’s lapdog. My opinion of Edward was that he was a poor manager who was being carried by two other, more experienced, managers he worked closely with. But I knew Edward would go far in his career, because he made friends with the right people who could influence his development – like George. Despite being not very good at his job and a bit of a brown-noser, I thought Edward was harmless. This was a mistake.

So, what happened? I had a small issue with one of my staff. I had to make a minor decision about this staff member, and I made it in the fairest way possible. In fact, according to the relevant policies, I didn’t have much choice. I knew the member of staff would be unhappy with my decision, but it was all very minor, and I expected it to soon be forgotten. However, my sense that I had been objectively fair was seen in a very different subjective light by this neurotypical staff member. As many autistic people have found out to their cost, objective fairness is something most neurotypical people would claim to agree with… until it pisses them off. I had made another enemy.

One day, I walked into work to start my shift, to find my department in chaos. Edward was pretty much turning my department upside down. He had been told by store manager George to carry out an investigation, prompted by an allegation of procedural misconduct by… a certain member of staff. I found out from a friendly manager that it was, indeed, the aforementioned staff member with a grudge. I knew the allegation was bollocks, but the investigation was nevertheless disturbing. No evidence of the alleged misconduct was found, because the allegation had no foundation. However, during the investigation, Edward “discovered” that some mandatory documentation was “missing”…

I was furious. I knew that all my documentation was up-to-date and pristine. I knew I had signed off the supposedly “missing” documents. Where had they gone? Had the staff member deliberately removed them? Maybe, but I don’t think they would have had the nerve. Had George seen an opportunity to put me in my place, and removed them? Maybe, but I don’t think he would have risked dirtying his hands that way. No, I think that Edward got increasingly frustrated at not being able to find anything incriminating in his investigation, and so just ripped out a bunch of papers, and maybe threw them into the waste compactor. In this way, he was able to get a double-whammy with his boss: He could say he had thoroughly investigated and found no evidence to back the allegation, but due to his own thoroughness, had discovered something else. That would earn him a nice pat on the head.

It earned me a completely unfair written warning, which George delivered to me smiling all the way through… but not before he had presented me with some photocopies of pages from the employee handbook with highlighted sections about gross misconduct being met with dismissal. So, I went into that meeting thinking I would be fired for something I hadn’t done, only to see George smirking away as he gave me a warning. He was a cruel, vindictive man. The note-taker in the meeting was one of the female managers who had described him as “nice”.

It transpired that plenty of other people were dismayed with George’s conduct, including the powers-that-be at regional office. Not long after my warning, I had a week’s annual leave. On my return, several of my colleagues rushed to tell me that George had been removed from his role in the store, and sent to manage a much smaller store. Word on the grapevine was that he had been told very firmly to change his management style. Shortly after, Edward was also moved along. So, we got a new store manager, and this guy was very different. Let’s call him Jason.

Within a week of Jason taking over the store, everyone – staff and management alike – decided they hated him. Except me. Jason was big, brash, and loud. He was constantly cracking politically incorrect jokes. He was also very forthright and direct with his communication. You knew exactly where you stood with him. There was no bullshit, and no agenda. He was also very determined about making the store a better place to work, and about getting results. Something he didn’t get credit for, but which I observed in him many times, was that he was supportive of any manager who needed help or guidance. He encouraged people. I got on with him like a house on fire, and in retrospect I think it was because he was such an open book. Yes, he was brash and crass at times, but I didn’t feel intimidated at all. In fact, my performance improved considerably while I worked with him. All of a sudden, I was knocking results out of the park and enjoying my job. But that didn’t last, and you know why? It was because of neurotypical gossip…

One lunchtime, I was sitting with some colleagues, and Jason was the subject of conversation. Various people described how they didn’t like him. But some of them also commented on how well I got on with him, and how I seemed to be thriving. I was complimented on how well I was performing. Softened up with praise, you might say. Someone asked me if I was worried about being seen as “teacher’s pet”, and that was when I made my gossipy mistake. I replied, “I’m no fucking teacher’s pet, but to be honest, I feel like I can’t put a foot wrong just now.”

The next day, Jason stopped me on the shop floor, and said, “I hear you reckon you can’t put a foot wrong with me.” I couldn’t answer him. He gave me a disparaging look. Our working relationship was never quite the same after that. Soon, I was moved onto a department I really didn’t want to be on. I was unhappy again. It only ended when an HR manager on the region literally pleaded with me to move to a new store, eventually offering me a significant wage rise. I accepted. But Jason, in a final neurotypical gesture of, “fuck you, mister can’t-put-a-foot-wrong,” refused to release me until one week before Christmas. In retail, moving store one week before Christmas was a nightmare. Thank you to all the neurotypical gossipers who couldn’t wait to tell Jason about my off-the-cuff remark, and thank you to Jason for being a big neurotypical baby.

The point of these recollections is that my management career went through massive changes – a written warning (almost getting fired) and a challenging change of location – purely because I was not navigating neurotypical mazes of interaction successfully. When I look back on that career, and see how managers less able than myself consistently leapfrogged me into promotions, I get it now. As an autistic person who didn’t know he was autistic, I never made the social connections with the right people to push me upward. I always felt my results were so good that, sooner or later, the opportunities would come. But that’s not how it works in the neurotypical world.

I was masking ferociously, back then, striving to fit in wherever I found myself, but I was failing in the most important areas. From 2015, I started going through a long, distressing process of what I now know to be autistic burnout. This led to me leaving retail management in 2016. These days, I’m no longer in management. Instead, I’m doing a low-level job that just about pays my bills. And I’m very careful about what I say, and to whom I say it.

I will never put this blog behind a paywall. I want anyone, anywhere, to be able to access this content at any time. There are costs incurred running this website, however. So if you like what I’m trying to do here, please feel free to show your support with a small contribution via

That’s all for this week. Until next time, take care.


You can find The Autistic Writer on all your favourite social media channels

Why Do I Write This Blog?

When I first found out I was autistic, I was a middle-aged adult and I knew nothing about autism.  I quickly learned that there was a serious shortage of information and resources for adults in my situation.  With this blog, I aim to inform about autism and autism-related issues as I learn, hopefully helping people who are on a similar journey of discovery.  Like anyone who writes a blog, I want to reach as many readers as possible; if you like what I’m doing, please share it with your friends and followers.  I will never hide this blog behind a paywall, but running the website does incur costs. If you would like to support, feel free to make a small contribution at BuyMeACoffee.Com.

You might also be interested in David Scothern’s blog, Mortgage Advisor on FIRE, which covers a range of topics including mental health issues and financial independence.

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