Well, that was unexpected. I published my last blog post right before leaving for a rowing training camp, and had somewhat-intermittent internet access for the following 24 hours; in light of this, my latest check of the blog stats gave me a bit of a shock.
All I can really say is thank you — no, thank you mille fois — to everyone who read the post, engaged with it, and (in many cases) left some lovely responses, both public and private. I really appreciate you all taking the time to read this one dude’s little post.
Quite a few people shared it on Twitter, from good friends of mine to — in one particularly salient reminder of how fortunate I am here at Exeter — my own supervisor.
I was even contacted by one of the University of Cambridge’s disability mentors, asking whether he could share it with his own mentees.
One of the most pleasant messages I received, though, was from @Girl_by_the_Aga, a.k.a. Laura James. Laura is the author of Odd Girl Out: An Autistic Woman in a Neurotypical World, which was published earlier this year by Bluebird, a new imprint from Pan Macmillan specialising in ‘books for life’.
Short as it may be, Laura’s message meant an awful lot, particularly since her book has been instrumental in encouraging me to think more about Asperger’s and ideas of ‘neurodiversity’: without her writing, I doubt that I would have published that last post, hastily-written as it was. As I was writing, I had recently finished Odd Girl Out, which had proved to be a fairly quick read, yet no less powerful for all its brevity. The fundamental ‘arc’ behind Odd Girl Out is autobiographical, charting how Laura comes to terms with a very late diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome, but at several points she also presents snapshots of the mind of herself as a younger woman. Set against the reflective, considered narration offered by a woman in her forties, these vignettes stand out through their much more direct tone. It was often in these moments where I identified most strongly with Laura, as a younger version of herself recounted her problems at school with both charming naïvety and a frankness that was, at times, somewhat disarming.
When I am on my own with grown-ups I am called a chatterbox, but when I am at school I am called quiet. I am a quiet chatterbox. Sometimes I say this in my head. Quiet chatterbox. Quiet chatterbox. Quiet chatterbox. I like that there are lots of T sounds and if you say the words really quickly in your head they sound like a train and sometimes in my head I add choo choo at the end. Quiet chatterbox. Quiet chatterbox. Quiet chatterbox. Choo choo. (p. 46)
After school I go home with Alison and that is OK. I like Alison’s house and I especially like her bedroom because it is always very tidy without her even trying. I get muddled in my bedroom, so it is always messy and this makes me feel confused about where things are. I like things to be lined up neatly. All my toys are in a line in my room, but sometimes I am not very good at putting my clothes away, so they are on the floor and I get into trouble for this. (pp. 49-50)
As someone whose room plays host to an intriguing combination of perfectly-organised books and clothes are scattered everywhere as if a bomb had just hit them, I can certainly relate to child Laura. These moments of intense empathy were not uniquely the preserve of Laura’s younger self, though: the lucidity with which ‘grown-up’ Laura would later analyse her younger self’s thought patterns and actions frequently left me identifying very strongly with this other late-diagnosed ‘Aspie’.
I wanted so much to be part of that and, although I did sometimes get invited along, I was never quite in the middle of a group. I was always on the edge, always getting it slightly wrong, never quite feeling part of things. I drifted in and out. (p. 59)
These clear-sighted examinations of how high-functioning autism affects people of all ages are frequently accompanied by soundbites from authorities on the subject, as Laura shows her research ‘iceberg’ by drawing on interviews with figures such as Tony Atwood and Sarah Wild. Her comments on two areas that autistic people often find difficult, empathy and energy, were particularly insightful:
There’s much talk about autism and empathy. One school of thought is that autistic people do not feel it. I am easily confused by abstract concepts such as empathy. I cannot put myself in someone else’s shoes, but II am probably one of the most compassionate people you are likely to meet. My compassion, though, comes in the form of practical support. (pp. 98-9)
Tony Atwood summed it up well for me: ‘People with Asperger’s or autism spend a huge amount of mental energy each day coping with socialising, anxiety, change, sensory sensitivity, daily living skills and so on. So they’re actually expending more mental energy. Think of it as an energy bank account. (pp. 188-89)
The main narrative itself spans just over a year of Laura’s life, taking us from her diagnosis in August 2015 to her reflections on Christmas Eve the following year. In that time, she takes us through a series of momentous geopolitical shifts that we are still coming to terms with – Brexit, the election of Trump – but alongside all this, we are never quite allowed to forget that this is Laura’s world, and Laura’s story. After sharing early experiences with therapy and the publication of a newspaper interview on her Asperger’s, the final four months of Laura’s book are dominated by family matters, as her children prepare to leave for university. The finality of this departure, coupled several months later with the shock of having them home for Christmas, leads her to reflect on how she has changed as a person in the year since her diagnosis. Her initial aims for therapy after she received her diagnosis – ‘I want to stop being so confused by the world […] I want it all to be easier’ (p. 55) – fall away, as she realises that being diagnosed with Asperger’s was never going to be a silver bullet. Instead, she comes to see knowledge of her condition as a skill in itself, and as something that she can draw on:
‘Do you feel more real now?’, Tim says.
In many ways I do. It’s as if I have come full circle. Initially, I thought my diagnosis was the end of the story, that once I was given that knowledge it would be my happy-ever-after moment. I would know myself and my problems would magically disappear.
What came after was almost the opposite.
‘I think I do,’ I say, yawning and rubbing my eyes. ‘I’ve sort of learned to know myself.’ (p. 226)
Laura expertly puts into words a facet of Asperger’s that can be difficult to explain: namely, that it does not function as a sort of ‘Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free’ card. Instead, it’s an explanation: Asperger’s gives me a way of understanding why it is that I have to process logically things that seem to come naturally to others, and how it can be possible for me to have an immaculate book collection whilst simultaneously keeping my clothes in a heap on the floor. Working in broad-brush strokes such as these as well as in fine detail, Laura’s book offers both a powerful insight into the mind of an ‘Aspie’. For those of us with first-hand experience of autism, it also, perhaps ironically, provides plenty of moments for empathy; in this respect, Odd Girl Out emphatically proves its own point.
There are, of course, many other facets to Laura’s book. Of particular note here is Laura’s marrying of two under-represented perspectives within the autism community: neither late-diagnosed individuals nor women fit the typical ‘model’ of autism that is exists in the popular imagination: ‘Rain Main, The Curious Incident, The Rosie Project.’ (p. 10) Her comments on women and girls with autism, and on the difficulties faced by many female ‘Aspies’ in dealing with the ‘higher expectation of social engagement and empathy’ (p. 33), are some of the most arresting and insightful details in the whole book, alongside her suggestion later in the work that a common solution is to ‘copy their neurotypical peers’ (p. 155). They have certainly left me keen to explore further the experience of women and autism, especially in light of the polemic surrounding the ‘extreme male brain’ theory. I must confess to relative ignorance on this matter, but hopefully my own research in this area will clarify this question for me.
Perhaps the single standout point from Odd Girl Out, however, is one that is inherently intersectional in nature. Laura is an unflinching advocate of ‘neurodiversity’, having come to the realisation that her brain is simply ‘differently wired’ (p. 8) and that, crucially, this is something to be celebrated. Chapter 10 of her book contains a wonderfully-written excursus on the root causes of autism and the true nature of what is known as the ‘autism spectrum’. The whole piece deserves to be read in full, but one phrase in particular stood out for its relentless optimism and (to be honest) sheer quotability:
Autistic people bring so much to the world. We are scientists and artists, writers and doctors. We are gardeners and primary school teachers. Council workers and cleaners. But more than this, we are human with the same hopes and fears and dreams and desires as everyone else. (p. 145)
In a way, this quote seems like the single best way to end this blog post, which, at just over 1600 words, is already rather longer than usual. I certainly don’t intend for Anglo-Normantics to become a blog about Asperger’s, but in the wake of the inspiration that Laura’s book offers, let’s just say it’s highly likely that I will return to the topic of Asperger’s at some point, particularly in the context of PhD study. In any context, though, I would thoroughly recommend Odd Girl Out to all those looking to deepen their understanding of an often-misunderstood condition: it is a beautifully-written work that attests both to the bravery of its author and to the value of contributions such as hers to society at large.
Oh, and it also contains the phrase ‘intellectual orgasm’. You’ll have to read the book to find out where, though.
Laura James, Odd Girl Out: An Autistic Woman in a Neurotypical World is published by Bluebird Books. £16.99.