Does anybody else ever find themselves playing this game?
I’m always on the lookout.
My daughter loves going to our local museum. For a while we went every weekend: always the same routine of bus–café–museum–park–ice cream (summer only)–bus. Now that my girl is at school, our weekends are more varied. There’s often a birthday party to attend. Sometimes a visit from relatives. And sometimes, I’m just too damned exhausted to take the kids anywhere, and we stay at home doing crafts, reading books, or playing make-believe.
Even so, our ritual visits, and their accompanying set sequence of activities, are still fairly frequently observed.
My daughter’s favourite exhibit is an interactive game where you can use a touchscreen to select body components, traits and features to ‘design a creature’, and then see how well it fares in a particular habitat. And it’s here we often meet children like her, and like me.
As my girl makes up her monster, I have in-depth conversations with primary-age kids about their favourite amphibian. I listen to their enthusiastic explanations of why, for them, cartilaginous fish are superior to mammals, reptiles, birds or insects, or why a certain invertebrate has the best defence mechanism. Sometimes, they attempt to guide my daughter in her creature design choices, giddily and excitedly gesticulating (she always has her own views and ignores what others suggest). I always enjoy these times. As much as I am a mum, I also feel free to be me.
It’s easier to spot the kids. Particularly the boys (they’re not hiding so much).
Adults, less so.
It’s comforting to discover others like you, but the truth is that – offline – I rarely do. Not many who are diagnosed, that is. And yet I often find myself wondering.
Friends’ Facebook posts about overpowering reactions to smells or sounds. The mention of fear of eye contact; dread of small talk. Cute obsessions, lovingly captured via Instagram. Info-dumps. Lists. Oh so many lists.
And whilst I’m skeptical about ‘armchair diagnosis’, I can’t help but do it from time to time when I watch the news, a documentary, a gameshow, or a celebrity interview.
And certainly, I’ve come across people in my work who I’m sure are autistic. Not in my immediate team, but close by. There might something about their movements or mannerisms; awkwardness one moment, fluidity the next. Hardly surprising – academia can be a refuge for many who think differently; who explore and investigate more intensely; who approach things from a different angle; who see what others can’t see.
At times, I wish we had signals. Perhaps not a special handshake (good God, I hate shaking hands), but something. It would be nice to have that subtle yet satisfying mutual recognition of other members of your tribe.
But always, when I think I’ve come across one of my ‘people’, I let my guard down a little. I’m a little freer in my movements, I’ll indulge the other person’s apparent idiosyncrasies without question, and I’ll perhaps be a little more open with my own. You never know.
Maybe they have a diagnosis, but don’t want to disclose. Maybe they don’t even realise.
I’ve grown so used to ‘mirroring’ my neurotypical peers, despite the cognitive, physical and emotional cost of doing so. So when I come across someone who seems a little different, but perhaps a little like me, it can be a relief to just go with the flow, and respond to what seems a far more truthful mirror in front of me.
So many of us are hidden. We hide deliberately, or we unwittingly hide from ourselves. And I wonder, just wonder, what it would be like if the world were more knowledgeable, and more accepting.
Would I still need to be on the lookout?
Or would Spot the Autistic be a far easier game to play?
[Featured image credit: ‘Lookout‘ by Duncan Rawlinson. Featured image shows a coin-operated binocular viewing machine, pointed outwards over some rails towards an area of trees and water. The sky is blue with minimal cloud.]