There are many times in my life when I’ve pretended to be an expert in something – both to myself and to others; both knowingly and unwittingly.
As a child, I would often deny the existence of new pieces of knowledge outside my ken if they’d been brought to my attention too suddenly, too unexpectedly, or in hostile or otherwise unpleasant circumstances. I’d correct people, without being open to the possibility that they might actually be the one in the know.
It wasn’t that I didn’t like learning new things; I loved learning new things, but I liked to learn them on my terms. Even now, it’s something I struggle with. That autistic need for control.
Plus, discovering very suddenly that I’m wrong hits me violently, and hurts.
As I grew older, growing more and more desperate to find a place to fit in, I would feign expertise and wisdom on matters important to those around me – fashion, music, literature, TV programmes, politics. But my expertise was rarely anything other than surface-level. It was all part of my social mask.
I’ve written previously about how I’m not a “proper geek”, and how, in the past, this has caused me to struggle with my identity as an autistic person. I’m a polymath, and highly able academically, but I’m interested in far too many topics, fields and subjects to become a true expert in any of them. I struggle to say no to things and people. I struggle to narrow down my choices.
Perhaps it’s the ADHD-er in me. Always chasing after the next glimmering, moving, intellectual thrill, even before my thirst in a previous area has been fully quenched.
Certainly, the fact I went so long without formal identification for either autism or ADHD has meant I’ve never truly understood how to learn in a way that suits me best. Had I known earlier what I now know about myself, I might have understood better how to narrow down my interests and organise my time – the better to reduce overload and overwhelm; the better to be compassionate, nurturing and kind to myself.
I might also have recognised that it can be okay not to know.
The years of pretending to know more than I did came from a deeply ingrained lack of confidence and low self-esteem. I was afraid that others would discover how fake I really was; how stupid I really was. I wasn’t really clever; I’d just got lucky enough times to get reasonably far in life.
I know this isn’t really the case.
Another awkward truth I’ve had to face up to is how abjectly frightened I get when I become interested in a topic, only to realise how little I know about it, and how much I still have to do to become knowledgeable.
The more I know, the more I realise I don’t know.
As someone who wants to take pride in their intelligence, and who wants to know everything, it’s belittling and crushing to realise, when I’m in the midst of learning something, that I’m still little more than a novice. I’m intimidated by the magnitude of what’s in front of me. In the past I’ve been so daunted by the scale of a task that I’ve decided to quit before I had the chance to fail.
These feelings have been played out again in the recent years I’ve been learning more about autism – my own, and autism in general.
I’ve always hated being a beginner – it’s one reason why I hated practising when I was learning to play musical instruments. I’ve been thinking of overhauling the information pages on this site for a while, but can’t quite face doing it. Nevertheless, I know a lot more about autism and the autistic community now than I did when I originally published much of what’s on here, and sometimes I physically wince at the naivety evident in some of the resources I’ve shared, and the words I’ve written – in the same way that I might physically wince at the scraping sound of a beginner violinist, or the screechings of a primary school recorder concert.
When it comes to autism, I’m still a relative beginner.
Recently, I applied for an academic job in an autism-specific field. I knew I’d barely be in with a chance, with my absence of PhD and my limited autism-specific professional experience. My lengthy track record in learning and teaching was probably not relevant enough.
But it was a job I’d have loved. And I naively thought personal experience alone would get me a long way. I’m facing instability at work, and felt there was nothing to be lost from giving it a go – it says something about how far I’ve come confidence-wise that I felt comfortable enough to submit an application.
I wasn’t shortlisted.
But even while I’ve congratulated myself for getting “out there” and being ambitious, I’m still embarrassed that I even put in an application. I wince again, this time at my audacity in doing so.
Autism is huge field. Of course I didn’t know enough to secure that kind of job.
But I can learn.
The more I know, the more I realise I don’t know.
And I’m increasingly accepting not knowing as an opportunity. An opportunity to learn, to develop skills, and to grow. I’ve reminded myself that learning new things is exciting. There’s a whole wealth of potential learning ahead of me. So much fun to be had.
I’m gradually overcoming my long-held lack-of-PhD-related inferiority complex, and my frustration that I can’t take time out of my working life to study autism formally in the way that some of my peers are able to. But my life is different from theirs, and there are other opportunities and benefits that I’ve had that some of my peers have not. I’m not comparing like with like.
So I’m studying autism for fun. I’m devouring books and peer-reviewed journal articles in my limited spare time. I’m reading academic research and personal accounts. I’m making careful notes, keeping close bibliographic records, and forming links and connections. And I’m enjoying it.
And sometimes, yes, I get embarrassed, frustrated, and even scared by how much I still don’t know. But I’ve faced so much in my life that’s truly terrifying, and this is mild by comparison. I’ll never know everything. No-one can. And it’s fine for me to accept that I can’t devote the time to learning about autism that a student, researcher, or lecturer in autism can. I can only do what’s within my capacity to do at any given time.
In the past couple of months I’ve taken the leap of delivering freelance training, alongside my day job. Sometimes alone, sometimes with a fellow autistic with whom I share a number of professional interests. It all started somewhat accidentally, but the responses by participants have so far been great, and I’m anticipating that demand will grow. I have ideas for consultancy work, and more “professional” types of writing. Some of this connects very emphatically with what I do in my substantive area of employment (I’m always able to make connections); some of it extends and expands into other areas.
As I design, plan and prepare for the work I do, I’m adding to my own body of knowledge and bank of skills all the time. I’m already skilled at teaching and training delivery, but I’m also – regardless of my many struggles – good at learning new stuff. As long as it’s on my terms.
I realise I need to pace myself. I mustn’t let my ideas get ahead of me, however excited I get about them. I still need to pay the bills, cover the mortgage, and feed my family. And for now, I need the stability of permanent employment.
But in the longer term, who knows where this learning will lead? I know for certain that it won’t be wasted.
The more I know, the more I realise I don’t know. But that’s okay. There’s a bright future ahead.
[Image credit: ‘Fracthulhu’ by Charles Strebor. Image features fractal spirals in a multitude of different colours.
I’m fully aware that fractals aren’t a complete metaphor for what I’m talking about in this post. Google’s definition is of “a curve or geometrical figure, each part of which has the same statistical character as the whole” – this isn’t something that can be said about bodies of knowledge.
Nevertheless, there’s a connection with the idea of infinite complexity being continually revealed the deeper you delve and closer you explore.
And anyway, fractals are pretty.]