Information, social communication, and empathy – let’s look at a little closer…

Celiling tile with many perforations of different sizes, plus part of a swirling-shaped ventilation unit. Big problem for me visually.

[Edit: at the time when I wrote this post, I mistakenly thought of myself as an extrovert. I was incorrect in this assessment of myself – as I explain here. This is a big, long, journey of self-discovery, readers! However, in all other respects, the words I present below are as true as they ever were, and just as heartfelt.

Apologies, folks – this is a looooong one…]

I hadn’t intended to address The Empathy Question just yet. Since my formal diagnosis, I have shared my blog more widely with people I know, and in particular many of my non-autistic friends. I’d like to educate, inform, (hopefully) entertain a little, and basically not get too political for the time being. It was my intention to pootle along, writing whimsically about my love of green spaces, my fascination at the structure of leaves and flowers, the way the sky sparkles for me and whatnot, interspersing this perhaps with the odd discussion of social interaction faux pas.

But The Empathy Question has been bothering me, and it’s an itch I must therefore scratch.

One of the things that increasingly frustrates me about media explanations of autism is the tendency to describe the condition purely in terms of visible behaviour, and nothing more. Time and time again, it’s presented to the world as merely a collection of repeated movements and actions, restricted thoughts, difficulties with communication and social interaction, and so on.

Yes, these are characteristic behaviours exhibited by autistic people, but this representation ignores what’s ‘under the bonnet’. It fails to even consider what might actually be going on internally; furthermore, it leads to the somewhat offensive suggestion that autistic people don’t even have any inner life; that all that there is to an autistic person is what you see in front of you. And yet these traits are merely the external manifestations of something else, which is at the absolute heart of what makes an autistic person autistic. It’s a common misconception that autistic people lack empathy, and also that we are emotionless and empty. This is simply Not. True.

Here’s a very pertinent tweet I came across recently:

Tweet, by Dr Elena M Chandler, dated 23 July 2016, reads:
Tweet, by Dr Elena M Chandler, dated 23 July 2016, reads: “Scientists, if you addressed our sensory integration problems, it’ll clear up a lot of social interaction problems. genetic research won’t.”
But first, for me, it comes down to information.
When I say ‘information’, I mean this quite literally in any form. Sensory information – sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, proprioception, vestibular, internal bodily sensations. Communication – be that visual, written, spoken, non-verbal, online, paper-based, social, formal, or whatever. One’s own thoughts are information (and by golly gosh, if you’re autistic, you have an awful lot of thoughts). And, of course, there’s emotional information.

You see, autistic people perceive and process information differently from neurotypical folks. We don’t ‘filter’ it in the same way. We can be more or less sensitive to different types of information than neurotypical people, depending on the type of information, environment, personal circumstances, our aspects of our personality, character and being, and a whole load of other factors. And that affects the way we empathise. But first, about that thing called ‘information overload’…

Too much information?

Autism is often described primarily as a ‘social communication disorder’. I prefer to think of it as an variation in information processing. That variation is what causes the social communication issues.

The vlogger Tom Bowes (Autistic Genius) often seems to prefer the term information overload to ‘sensory overload’, and I agree with him. Sensory information is, for me, only one of the many different categories of possible information that might potentially overload and overwhelm me.

I find myself behaving more ‘autistically’ these days. Part of that is down to embracing a truer, more authentic picture of who I am, through self-realisation, self-identification, and now, a formal autism diagnosis. I’d been hiding many of my behaviours for years because I didn’t realise quite how fundamental they were to who I am. But part of acting more autistic is simply down to an increase in the information I have to deal with every day.

There are times when I love the way I experience information. I find fascination in detail. I am able to make connections all over the place, linking apparently unrelated pieces of information together in complex networks and patterns. Flowers glow like candles against a backdrop of greenery. The sky really does sparkle on sunny days. I experience intense sensory pleasure when enjoying a good meal, or lingering over a decent glass of wine. Music, or a particularly powerful piece of writing, can move me to tears.

But like many autistic people, I am perpetually on the verge of being overloaded. This is even more the case these days – I have more to think about, more decisions to make, more to worry about, and far less mental and emotional downtime than I did in my teens and 20s. A lot of the everyday stimuli that never used to bother me are now, at times, difficult to handle. Even an extrovert like me can get tired out if she’s an autistic extrovert. I have exceedingly limited opportunity to recharge my batteries, to replenish my spoon supply.

And when I’m overloaded (well, not just when I’m overloaded, but it’s especially important at those times),  I need to stim.

Stimulate. Regulate. Meditate.

For me, stimming tends to a number of different purposes.

Firstly, to address my pent-up ADHD-ish need for constant movement. I need to fidget. I need to wiggle my fingers, fiddle with a Tangle, or play with my hair. It’s essential. The coiled-up spring cliché.

Secondly, at times when I need some form of physical feedback. I’m highly sensitive to sounds, touch, smells, internal bodily sensations and (at certain times) light. My proprioceptive and vestibular awareness, however, are more limited. I struggle to ‘feel my body in space’. I’m also clumsy and have issues with balance (possible overlap with dyspraxia here!). These things (along with executive functioning issues and problems with distraction) are probably another reason why I don’t listen to music when exercising – I need to plough all my energies of focus into awareness of what my limbs, and the rest of my body, are doing. Any other information, including music, is overly distracting. It also means I quite like exercising when my muscles are pre-fatigued – there’s more resistance, and therefore more feedback.

Stimming – especially movements like twirling, swaying or arm-waving – is another way of getting that feedback. Many autistic people find the types of stimming that aid proprioception are particularly helpful in times of acute stress or meltdown. And yes, at times these might be self-injurious (though in my case less so now than, for example, during my teens – although I still have a tendency to want to punch my fists into things, or at least shake them vigorously, if shit gets really bad.).

Thirdly, for self-expression. I like to dance, hum, and sing. Other people flap their hands. But there are many ways to express yourself ‘in the moment’.

And finally, to provide a focus – a grounding, or anchor – to aid me in drawing my attention away from all the other information that happens to be overwhelming me. An autistic form of mindfulness practice, you could say.  Sometimes it’ll be a visual thing – a ‘sensory boost‘ gained from closely examining a flower or leaf, or being mesmerised by the ripples in a lake.  At other times, it’s those small, fidgety movements again, movements that are usually repetitive. There’s comfort and solace to be gained from repetition. It’s controllable; it’s predictable. Another thing I also find myself doing is counting repeatedly to 20, and interestingly, counting breaths,  I have learned, can itself be a form of mindfulness meditation.

And I’m not alone in needing to do these things.

Same old same old

And so we come to routine. Movements and actions aren’t the only thing that might seem, to a non-autistic person, overly repetitive or ‘rigid’.

When I was reflecting on this aspect of autism prior to referral for assessment, this was something that I didn’t feel strongly applied to me.  I don’t wear the exact same outfit every day, or always eat the same things. My working days are never uniform. But then I thought a little more about this.

When I was a young, social animal, I never, ever failed to remove all my makeup, or go through my entire step-by-step skincare routine after a night out. No. Matter. How. Drunk. I might have barely been able to stand up, but I still felt stressed at those times when I wasn’t able to get my face fully clean using my specific routine. It helped me feel that, no matter how chaotic my situation at the time, all was right in the world if I looked after my skin.

These days it’s the same with cleaning my teeth. I find my dental hygiene routine – brushing, flossing, mouthwash – incredibly tedious. But no matter how tired I am, how late it is, or how little time I have in the morning because the kids are clamouring for attention and I need to get myself out of the door and off to work, I can’t not perform the ritual in its entirety.

My daughter has a bedtime routine, but I tend to be the one who gets stressed out when it’s disrupted. There’s comfort in the controllable, the predictable.

I find summer vacations at work stressful – when there isn’t a regular pattern of teaching preparation and delivery, assessment, and meetings with academic colleagues, there’s often still loads of work to do. But the lack of structure in my calendar leaves me struggling to prioritise my tasks and plan my time.  There are too many decisions to be made.

But perhaps the biggest problem for me is dealing with anything that is unplanned or unexpected. I might not need the same routine every day of my life, but I still need to be prepared.

Too much information – information overload – can drastically affect an autistic person’s already-shaky executive functioning abilities. If my schedule is disrupted, this means making new decisions. And in my case, this means mentally playing through all the information associated with each alternative choice in the decision-making process. It can be exhausting, and often I feel paralysed, and I shut down. I withdraw. I stare blankly at my computer monitor, or off into space. If the disruption is exceptionally sudden, I have a meltdown. These are the times when I value the support I get from my colleagues at work, or my husband at home. There’s no shame in asking for help – something I’m still having to learn.

Routine and structure are important. They help us maintain control over the inflow of information. Because there’s so damned much of it.

Social communication ‘fails’, as told by an autistic extrovert

I’ve already explained in a previous post that I see myself as an ‘autistic extrovert’. Autistics, just like people of any other neurological profile, come in all shapes, sizes, flavours, and personality types. One of the things that makes my autism ‘atypical’, at least according to my clinical psychologist (CP), is the fact that I’ve never really been short of friends, or experienced the same levels of social isolation that affect many autistics.

However, being around people lots, and engaging in the copious social interactions that this entails, has its own problems even for an extrovert, when that extrovert struggles to read all but the most glaringly obvious facial expressions, engage with the norms of two-way verbal communication, or properly discern communication signals from all the other pieces of information that are coming at her. There’s only so much I can take in at once, and the stuff that’s more difficult, no matter how important, tends to get filtered out. My brain is undertaking a little exercise in self-preservation.

I’ve made myself vulnerable by higher-than levels of social exposure (another fact noted in my diagnosis report). I’ve got myself into a lot of scrapes. I’ve bored people to tears, repeated myself excessively, misinterpreted signals and misunderstood the intentions of others. I’ve been unable to process correctly the information coming to me from the people I interact with. At other times, I’m simply overwhelmed and overloaded by the quickfire nature of the interaction and sheer volume of communication information. I get flustered if the conversation is taking an unexpected turn (this means quick decision-making again, folks. And, as we’ve seen above, that causes problems!). It’s led to serious emotional abuse, gaslighting, being taken advantage of, being misinterpreted myself, or at the more mundane end, simply making a fool of myself.

Because of these difficulties, I need to be in control of a conversation. It’s often the reason why, in group work situations at work or in studies, I take on the role of discussion leader. I can steer the conversation in a direction I’m comfortable with. I can limit the number of tangents people take. And it’s easier to assert my own views if I can control the extent to which others butt in or take over. And if I believe I’m right about something, that’s important!

All of this means I can come across at times as bossy or opinionated. I have a tendency to take over. And sometimes it means others in the group then place more responsibility on me – to report back on a group discussion to an entire room of people at a conference, to write up or feed back outcomes more formally. And I’m damned good at communication a lot of the time because I’ve practised so much, but after a while of playing the role of capable, confident, articulate communicator, it all gets a little tiring.

And when I’m tired, I tend to get emotional.

Overwhelmed by emotional information

So yeah, this post was supposed to be all about empathy. But somehow I’ve ended up writing about all sorts of other things. I’ve changed the title and URL three times already. But I suppose we’d better get back to our original topic.

Yesterday, I received the written report of my assessment through the post, confirming my official diagnosis (about two weeks earlier than expected – not only is my CP awesome for being reassuring and compassionate, yet thorough and objective; they’re efficient too). One of the things the report notes is my experiences of ‘hyper-empathy’. There are times when I feel empathy way more keenly than some people.

I’ll level with you. I’m not liking 2016 too much.

Yeah, personally, things are pretty good. I have a lovely husband, wonderful children, amazing friends and family, and a job that – whilst it comes with plenty of potential for overload and burnout – allows me to work on things I love and find interesting, alongside colleagues who are supportive, accepting, and understanding. I now have a formal autism diagnosis and people tell me I’m now more relaxed as a result. And it looks as though my daughter will be assessed fairly soon. Our life is going well.

But the rest of the world? There’s too much death, destruction, and despair. What the hell is with all the hatred, murder, prejudice, and abuse? Can’t we all just get along?

I limit the volume of news and current affairs items I watch and read. I just can’t take the pain and suffering that I imagine others to be experiencing. I am repeatedly ‘putting myself in others’ places’, and this makes me anxious, and keeps me awake at night. As a child, I used to cry myself to sleep thinking about the suffering I’d witnessed from a character in a film or TV programme.

Sometimes, autistic people’s reactions to an emotional event, or the experiences of other people, can seem ‘inappropriate’. We might shut down and become unresponsive; we might bark or snap at the person asking for help; we might try and turn the attention back towards ourselves; we might physically lash out. Some of us do not use the ‘default’ communications methods used by the majority, and that can make it event harder to express ourselves. Others – like me – can usually communicate pretty well, but this ability often falls short at times of stress.

And usually, this comes to Too Much Information. Emotional information is complex, fuzzy, ill-defined; it can seem bewildering and illogical – not because we don’t feel emotions, but often because we feel too much.

We often have a strong sense of justice and fairness. We like to help others. We often want to make the world a better place. We are often compassionate, kind, and caring.

You see, we can, and frequently do, feel empathy. But the way we express it, or deal with it, is influenced by the substantial differences, from non-austistic people,  in how we process information.

This is why I’m glad that the UK National Autistic Society is currently running its ‘Too Much Information‘ campaign.

If you still find any of this difficult to understand or accept, just talk to us. Or – more importantly – listen to us, using whatever means or methods we need to communicate with you.

We have plenty to say. And we’re happy to tell you about it.

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Positively differently abled…

[Author’s note, 27 September 2017: looking at this post over a year on since writing it, and I HATE some aspects of it. I HATE the term “differently abled’. I’m disabled. And I’m happy with that. I leave it up as is, because this was my perspective at the time.]

It’s coming up to a week since I received verbal confirmation of my diagnosis. And whilst I’d been anticipating the confirmation of my autism, the ADHD and dyspraxia were a little more of a curveball. Sure, one of my former colleagues in an old job once made a flippant remark to me about ADHD when I’d got distracted by something; a counsellor I was seeing a few years back suggested I might want to look into dyspraxia, and I did mention it to my GP, but because there’s no separate mechanism for testing adults for the condition, I abandoned that notion and forgot all about it (and a lot of Aspies, especially females, are known to have motor coordination issues). But now these two additional neurodivergences have at least been deemed “probable” in my case, they do in fact make sense.

The thing that I’ve been grappling with most over the past week, however, is how to put a positive slant on them both.

I’ve been comfortable for a while with identifying the strengths and benefits of being autistic alongside the many difficulties – attention to (and enjoyment of) detail, recognising patterns, highly developed research skills, thoroughness, strong sense of justice and fairness, intense enjoyment and interest in learning, heightened sensory awareness (a blessing or a curse depending on the circumstances), and yes, extreme empathy (that’s a complicated one, folks – the “autistic lack of empathy” fallacy is for another post)…the list goes on.

But ADHD and dyspraxia? What the hell have those two ever done for me?

ADHD? All it seems to do is make me irritable, highly distractible, snappy, short-tempered verging on outright aggressive at times, and so bloody fidgety that (in combination with my autistic wandering brain) it pretty much ensures a crap night’s sleep.

Dyspraxia? Clumsiness. Poor muscle tone. Dreadful coordination. Pain with handwriting. Forgetfulness, and the intense anger that comes with losing the same bloody things time and time again (and the frustration this brings when it disrupts my autistic desire to be on schedule). A lifetime of being awful at sport, and the humiliation that came with that at school.

Where were the positives? I thought of “reaching out” on Twitter for suggestions, but decided simply to do some Googling instead. Blimey, I’m an Information Management graduate. I’m sure I can find something. And actually quite a few decent results came back.

And so I reflected. And I concluded. And yes, there are things here that I can work with; that I can own; that have contributed to who I am today, and what’s good about my life.

At times I might seem a little too animated. But energetic exuberance and enthusiasm mean that (at least so I hope) my teaching and training sessions are rarely dull. Finding it virtually impossible to keep still means that at the very least, my delivery is rarely stilted. Combine that with my years of experience practising verbal communication, and my autistic attention to detail and immersion in special interests, and I can be pretty damned effective in the classroom. And people tell me this is the case.

And I may well be just hypothesising here, but perhaps this ADHD-tastic aspect of who I am also contributes to me being better able to cope with social interaction than some autistics. I mean, I still get a hell of a lot of stuff wrong, but perhaps my occasional impulsivity means I’m just that little bit more willing to throw myself into communicating, and doing stuff, with other people.

Creativity and problem-solving are abilities that seem to be strongly associated with both ADHD and dyspraxia. Certainly, when faced with being unable to do things in the way others seem to manage, you find workarounds. Sometimes those workarounds can be pretty convoluted; at other times they are truly innovative. Again, this ability to ‘hack’ has had a really positive impact on my teaching and curriculum development work, and other areas of other jobs I’ve had in the past.

Some of the strong positive aspects of dyspraxia, mentioned time and time again, include persistence and determination. And I know this to be true of myself. In my late 20s, under the care of a wonderful physiotherapist after a succession of running injuries, I re-learned how to walk. Let me get this clear: I was not physically incapable of walking; I’d just been doing it the wrong way all my life. And altering the extreme bad habits of a lifetime took some determination. It’s safe to say I am not a natural sportsperson. And yet I managed to follow, to near-completion, a full marathon training plan. Okay, I got injured prior to race day and therefore have unfinished business. But it gave me an inkling of what I was capable of. I have at various points in my life made myself physically very strong through lifting weights (my God, I’ve love to be strong again. And some day, I’m sure I will be).

And despite years of crippling procrastination issues, wayward time management skills (is this where my autistic obsession with always wanting to know the time stems from?), and executive dysfunction that has at times been so extreme it has reduced me to a screaming, shaking, sobbing wreck, I have the highest level of academic qualification of anyone in my family.

Perhaps it is this very determination and persistence that actually made me seek out an assessment for autism.

I reckon, also, that this tenacity is going to be a pretty darned useful tool to keep handy in the parenting workshed, especially if I’m ever to have a fight on my hands in securing the right kind of support for my daughter.

And although at times I get lost in the detail, I am still often able to pull back and see the bigger picture, zooming both in and out.

There appear to be some interesting conflicts and tensions between the three interacting neurotypes I’ve been blessed with. But without even realising it, I’ve been negotiating these conflicts and tensions my entire life. And yes, I’ve dealt with many, many challenges. But on the whole, my life is a happy one, and my happiness is a culmination of all that has occurred in my lifetime. And what has occurred in my lifetime, good and bad, has occurred because of who, and what, I am.

I am differently abled. And there’s a lot that’s positive about that.

And just like that, I’m official.

Computer monitor stand, with a selection of coiled up Tangle toys (black, silver, rainbow and multicoloured textured), a stress ball, and a pair of sunglasses. Next to the stand is a miniature glitter lava lamp, glowing green.

Earlier this week, I had a missed call on my mobile from a private number. This washed waves of anxiety over me. I’d asked my local NHS adult autism service to put me on the callback list in the event of any appointment cancellations – a year’s wait from the date of referral for assessment (the likely duration I’d been forewarned about) was a long time to contend with when I was already convinced I was autistic. What if it had been them? What if this was the only opportunity in the next 12 months I might get to come in earlier? Too late. I had no idea who it was who had called me.

Two days later, just as I was about to leave the office to go and deliver some training, I received another call from an undisclosed number. This time, I picked up.

“Hello is that Lady Ananas?”

“Yes. Hello?”

“This is X from the Adult Autism and Neurodisability Services. I understand you’re on the short-notice callback list, and we have a cancellation this afternoon? Would you be able to come in?”

…thinking…thinking…

“Er no, sorry. I’ve due to be doing a whole day’s training that I can’t get out of. Thanks, anyway. Can you still keep me on the callback list in case anything else comes up?”

“Okay, love. No problem – it’s just that cancellations don’t happen very often. But if you can’t make it, not to worry.”

“Okay, thanks very much. Bye.”

“Bye, love.”

Phone down.

Shit.

What. The. Fuck. Did. I. Just. Do?

Walking up the road to the training venue, I tried ringing the public number I knew I had for the service. Voicemail. Shit. Cue rambling message.

And so, for the entire morning’s training, I was fidgety, anxious; not really fully there.

Why is it that I never put myself first? I’m always so desperate not to let other people down. People know me and respect me – they could cope in this situation. I really should look after myself more. I’m so stupid. This is really important, and I’ve blown it.

My training delivery partner, who was already aware of my situation (I have a very accepting, diversity-friendly workplace), asked me what was up. I told him.

“Oh, you should have just said ‘yes’! I can cover the whole thing – we’ve worked on it together. Just give them a call again – even if they’ve already offered the appointment to someone else, at least you’ll know you did all you could.”

And so I rang back. The appointment was still unfilled. I said “Yes”. And in that moment I went from still-low-down-on-the-waiting-list to autism-assessment-in-T-minus-2 hours. Yikes! Not ideal preparation time, but hey.

In the taxi to the assessment venue, I felt sick. Deeply sick. What if I lost the plot? Forgot to tell the psychologist all those necessary things that had been whirring round in my head, and populating this blog, these past few months?

Caaaaalm. Breeeaaathe. Fidget with Tangle.

The service is based in a green, leafy part of town, with wide, clean streets and large buildings. The sun was shining. All outside was calm, as I was fizzing and churning inside. I buzzed in, went through the large glass doors, and signed in.

Inoffensive décor. Nothing too jarring on the senses, apart from one flickering light near the reception desk, which I could look away from quite easily.  A very welcome cup of tea available for the princely sum of 50p. A box of sensory items in the waiting area, plus an enormous beanbag, which I opted for instead of the horrid, low-seated, upright, square chairs that I can never, ever get my body comfortable on. My Tangle was still preferable to the other fidgety items on offer.

And ten minutes later, I was in the appointment.

Another oversized beanbag was made available. I sank into it and let it cocoon me. The light in the room remained off throughout. I decided that it was okay to make minimal eye contact with Dr S, while I fidgeted, fidgeted, fidgeted with the Tangle, and talked. Dr S was supportive, kind, encouraging; sensitively and gently steering me in another direction if I talked too long on a point for which he already had sufficient evidence (brevity is not a strength of mine).

And, after two and a half hours of answering questions, and a provision of my life history (in addition to the eight-page document I’d offered up to support my referral request), it was all done. I was utterly exhausted.

And I had gone from self-diagnosed to fully-fledged, bona fide autistic. Just like that. Written report to be typed up and posted to me, of course. But the diagnosis was clear. Autistic spectrum disorder (with caveats that my autism is of a very ‘atypical’ nature), with probably ADHD and dyspraxia. Explanations for a lifetime of struggles, but also validation of my many strengths. And the prospect that I will be seen again, and can start to work through how I might work, and be supported, to be a happy, autistic me.

And with that, a weight was lifted. A key aspect of who I am was finally confirmed to me. And whilst I cried and cried, I was happy.

That was yesterday. Less than 24 hours ago. And however I’ll be feeling as the days and weeks go by, right now, I couldn’t be happier.

Sharing: Curing Autism

“It’s time to accept what is, and work on making the world a better place. The time has come.”

I can’t begin to express how important, and true, the messages are in this post. In a world where my daughter and I face a year – or longer – of waiting for diagnosis, then the prospect of very little post-diagnosis support, and where, in other countries, the ability to get assessed is based on the ability to pay, something needs to change. We are here. We are valid, and we need support to be, as Rhi puts it, “the happiest versions of ourselves.” The funding needs a refocus.

Autism and Expectations

Can we talk about a cure?

There’s a real problem when it comes to Autism, and it’s not to be found in us autistics. It’s to be found in the focus of funding.

Time and time again I see people struggling to get diagnosed, and then struggling when there is so little real support post-diagnosis.

The vast majority of funding appears to be spent on finding a cause for Autism, and studying what it really means neurologically.

I’m not saying those things shouldn’t be funded, but that leaves a tiny percent left for actually supporting people.

I’ve recently seen a disturbing comment by a parent of an autistic child, berating an autistic adult for calling themselves autistic, “You wouldn’t call a child with cancer a cancer child!” is the argument.

I wonder if they know how hurtful and offensive that is? I wonder if they realise that they’re comparing a…

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The Atypical Introvert?

extreme close-up of green glitter in a lava lamp

[Edit: since writing this post, I have come to the realisation that I was wrong in my assessment of myself as an “extrovert”, having misunderstood the definitions. However, I leave this post here as is – I’m still going through the process of learning about who I am, post-formal diagnosis, and this was me back then.]

I’m something of an all-or-nothing Twitter user. I’ve had a public account since around 2009, predominantly used for whatever line of work I happen to be in. My Twitter activity is sporadic: if there’s a CPD event, awards ceremony, conference or marketing campaign going on, I’m there, tweeting everything, drumming up support, provoking discussion, sharing learning. The rest of the time? The odd tweet about gin, tea, the temperature of the office, equality and diversity, and very little else.

In my recently-embraced autistic guise, I have another, anonymous account (although if you know me, it probably isn’t that hard to identify me). And the one thing I’ve noticed is that, Boy, there’s a high volume of autistic tweetage going on. I find myself metaphorically tripping over the sheer abundance of scattered-yet-interwoven, to-ing and fro-ing, quick-firing autistic exchanges. And fascinating and engaging they most certainly are. And there are some bloody wonderful autistic people involved. People to whom I feel connected.

Recently, a user posted something. I can’t remember the exact wording of the tweet, but it was something along the lines of “extreme introversion = high functioning autism”. A fair few folks, I seem to remember, liked and retweeted this assertion. I, however, had real problems with it. I didn’t say anything at the time, but it did get me back to something I’ve often mused upon. Am I an introvert or an extrovert?

A few years ago, a colleague and friend leant me Quiet, by Susan Cain. What an absolutely fascinating read. There was so much in there that I felt I could relate to. Sensitivity to environmental stimuli? Check. Preferring a Friday night in with a glass of wine and a book or DVD? Check. Exhaustion from social interaction? Check. Needing time on my own? Check.

That’s it, I thought. However much I appear to be otherwise, I am evidently an introvert.

Except I’m not.

I have always been talkative. Itching to put my hand up in class. Never afraid to voice my opinion. Keen to point out the error of others’ ways (my way is logical. Why would they take that approach? Seriously!) – although in more recent times I’ve dropped that particular gem in favour of wincing, cringing, quivering, or making squealy noises, or – on very rare occasions when I’m not too tired – tactfully suggesting that they might want to look at an alternative.

An over-sharer of personal information. Always eager to join (butt?) in with a conversation. Almost incapable of embarrassment (in certain situations, that is. More of that later). Bossy, at times (I hate the word “bossy”. It’s grossly overused in relation to girls and women. But that particular rant is for another day). Always the leader in group work at university. Happy to facilitate a discussion. At times, it’s difficult to shut me up. Interrupt me and I’m occasionally furious.

This all puzzled me. What, then, was I? Was I some kind of ‘atypical introvert’ masquerading as an extrovert? Certainly, many of the things introverts apparently feel were things that I, too, feel. But nope. It didn’t. Quite. Fit.

You see, I had the feeling I was pretending. Putting on an act. And this feeling was well-founded.

I loved drama as a child – I loved performing, putting on voices and accents, assuming another persona. In my recent professional life, I have done a lot of teaching, training delivery, and public speaking. And, if I do say so myself, I’m pretty bloody good at it. The observations I underwent for my teaching qualification got glowing feedback. Presentations I give at conferences and other external events are often tweeted about, and often result in a flurry of interested ‘after show’ questions from other delegates. But I was absolutely bloody awful at all this a few years ago. Stammering, stuttering, uncertain; freezing at the slight hint of an interruption or distraction. I decided to ‘pretend’ – both to myself, and others – that I was confident and knew what I was talking about. Over time, with practice, that pretend aspect of my professional self became real. I became knowledgeable about my material, and I continue to add to this knowledge and experience. I grew confident in my delivery. I experimented with new techniques and realised I could comfortably vary my approach, and making things more interesting. Last year, I co-delivered a workshop to nearly 1,000 undergrad students, and I wasn’t remotely fazed. I genuinely enjoy doing this stuff these days. I’m in my element, because, these days, I’m the expert – these days, I know my stuff, I’m well-prepared; and any questions thrown at me are likely to follow particular patterns that I can deal with without bursting into tears or freezing on the spot.

So I had the feeling I was pretending, and indeed, this really was something I was doing. But my interpretation of the origins, the motivations, and the directions, of that pretence were somewhat off.

Truth was, I’d been doing a lot more pretending than even I realised. I wasn’t merely an introvert pretending to be an extrovert. I realised that, actually, I am an extrovert. Just not a neurotypical one.

I was never completely content with being on my own at all times. Sure, there were times when this was absolutely the right thing. But in general, I liked having friends. I wanted friends. I was weird, and didn’t really feel an affinity with the popular kids, but I wasn’t shy or keen to remain quiet.

As a kid, I preferred the type of social activity that involved doing something. Girl Guides; bell ringing; a brief spell in a Christian youth group before I turned forever atheist. Playing music in groups was perfect, because it allowed for that communality, interaction, and sense of shared purpose, without me having to bother with a whole load of social niceties. Later, however,  I wanted to go out. With people. To pubs, clubs, gigs, festivals, and all the sorts of thing young, gregarious, sociable people like doing lots of. I drank alcohol. A lot. I laughed, shouted, talked nineteen-to-the-dozen, danced, snogged boys, fell over…and at times (many times), I made an enormous, great fucking fool of myself.

But the truth was, I never had the desire to stay on the edge. Socially, however much of an outsider I was, I wanted to be in on the action. Fear of missing out? Oh yes. In spades, my friend. And so I observed what others did. How they dressed. What they said. The things they talked about. And I learned to act like them. And yet I often got it wrong.

I would misinterpret friendliness for flirting, and vice versa. And boys and men would do the same to me. I would cringe at how unsuccessfully I’d played the role of indie-pop vinyl junkie, hardcore punk, or jazz aficionado. I would wonder whether my mask had slipped.  I would come home after a night out desperately wishing I hadn’t revealed my innermost secrets to a handful of recent acquaintances. Dissecting and post-match-analysing those times when I’d droned on, and on, and on, and nobody had stopped me, and yet somehow the conversation had drifted away from me.

And yet, it never put me off going out. I never got any sense of ‘pre-going-out’ social anxiety. Of course, I’d rehearse conversations in my head on the walk into town or the drive over to a friend’s house. I’d run through the logistics and practicalities of the night out. And all the while the social occasion was happening, I’d have that endless, meta-analytical inner voice analysing and commenting upon everything that was panning out in front of me, telling me what was going on,  (sometimes wrongly) categorising the nature of the interaction, instructing me as to how to react or respond. That voice that I still hear today.

Exhaustion from social interaction came along more as I get older. My life got busier, and more intellectually demanding. I had less downtime. In some ways, I guess I grew up (in circumstances, if not in personality). There was simply less room in my life for socialising, and less downtime meant I got tired more easily. And that’s where I’m at today.

But I’m still talkative. I still enjoy social interaction. It has to be planned – I get horribly flustered by unexpected, spontaneous socialising. It interrupts my vision of how I saw my day panning out, however much I like the other person. I resent it. And however much that type of interaction might be enjoyable, pleasant, I’m still trying to get away, to get back on track with my original plans. And I’m far better at talking than I am at listening. Listening was, is, and always will be, something I find difficult. But as long as I have some some control, I love a good chat.

Because I’m not an introvert. I’m an autistic extrovert.