‘Unpost’* one: solace in a spider web

Have you ever watched a spider spin its web? I mean, not just watching a speeded-up playback of a time lapse recording on the telly, but actually sat or stood in front of a real spider spinning its web in real time before your eyes?

This afternoon for the first time I did exactly this.

In recent weeks, I’ve been coming to the increasingly clear conclusion that I have, for a long time, been suffering from a certain degree of complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD). This isn’t something I’ve randomly decided, and it’s not something I’m plucking out of the air. There have been discussions going on in the adult autistic online world, and much of this resonates with me.

I’ve struggled for some time to write any new posts for this blog. I seem to be in a constant state of exhaustion. I haven’t had the energy, time, or emotional wherewithal to write much in the way of new content – whether whimsical, creative, exploratory musings, or intelligently- and expertly-crafted essays.

I haven’t had the battery power for advocacy, politics, or any form of campaigning on behalf of myself or of any other autistics through my writing. I’m barely keeping my head above water sufficiently to do my job, or be an effective parent.

But my recent “vignettes“ posts seem to be coming out of nowhere. Painful memories have been coming to the fore as a result of chance conversations and certain word combinations I have read or heard online, or they’ve revealed themselves as the landscape and landmarks surrounding some of the stops, halts, or termini on the journey taken by my train of thought.

They’re flashbacks.

They’re vivid.

And while I can’t get rid of them entirely, by capturing them in writing, I’m taming them, before releasing them into the wider world in a controlled fashion, their custody no longer solely my responsibility.

I know there will be plenty more of them.

I’m increasingly realising that I have been traumatised. Not by a sudden, catastrophic event. My trauma is cumulative. It is the trauma of countless small painful experiences. Emotional pain. Intellectual pain. Social pain. Sensory pain. Some of that pain has been of a primarily physical nature; sometimes, the effects upon me of other forms of pain have themselves been physical.

Some of that pain has been inflicted upon me by other people – both prior to and since my autism diagnosis. Some of those who inflicted that pain were fully aware I was autistic, many weren’t. A lot of pain has been (and still is) self-inflicted – I’ve learnt to expect negative interactions with others, or problematic interpretations of my behaviour, actions, and modes of communication. I’ve learnt to assume that I’m the one in the wrong even when I know that, objectively speaking, that isn’t the case. And I beat myself up about it.

Today was a team away day. It was a far more positive experience for me than the event which formed the subject matter of a recent work vignette. The afternoon discussions were practical, and produced some tangible results that might actually help to shape the services we deliver and give us some concrete objectives.

From an accessibility point of you, everything had been handled pretty well. The venue wasn’t sensorily objectionable. I, and a fellow autistic working in our section, had received plenty of advance information about the structure of the event, and details on the format of specific activities. I didn’t feel remotely uncomfortable about ducking out of conversations during the breaks and sitting in a corner with my headphones on, or taking myself outside for a breather.

But the first exercise of the day felt problematic for me – we were each asked to pick a shape that we felt most closely represented who we were as individuals. Having looked at the material beforehand, I had already made up my mind that I was a “squiggle“. There were a fair few of us squiggles, including a not-insignificant number of neurodivergent folks in the room.

I associated the squiggly line with dynamism, energy, creativity, exploration, lateral thinking, and a busy, active mind. Boxes are too rigid; circles have some appeal to me, with their lack of endpoint, their sense of unity, continuity, inclusiveness, and something of the holistic. I don’t see myself as a pointy triangle or a rectangle.

We were asked, in individuals then groups, to note down words associated with each of the shapes – the ones we most strongly identified with, our second choices, and those with which we identified the least strongly.

Whilst it was meant to be a harmless, lighthearted, not particularly scientific activity to provoke discussion about team dynamics, and help us think about the characteristics of some of the people we work with, I couldn’t help feeling triggered by some of the more negative words and phrases that a few “non-squiggle” colleagues associated with my shape.

Flaky

Out of control.

Messy.

Doesn’t plan anything – or struggles to stick to plans.

Unpredictable.

There was hostility towards some of the other shapes as well – the “box/square” came in for a fair bit of criticism.

But whilst it was not intended that we read too much into this, I was reminded of all the times when people have levelled criticism at me without fully understanding me. I’ve been told I was out of control, that I can’t multitask, that I’m disruptive. I’ve called myself “stupid” and “lazy” because I procrastinate, have difficulty planning and organising, and difficulty seeing things through – often because too many other ideas are crowding my consciousness, vying for my attention, but also, frequently, because I simply can’t make my brain “do the thing”.

I’ve been criticised, and often criticised myself, simply for being the way I am in a world in which my way of being isn’t the majority modus operandi.

When all the time, I’m having to negotiate far more just than the explicit task at hand. I am, in fact, multitasking by default, because – as a disabled person and an autistic person – I am simultaneously performing so many extra “jobs“ on top of the one that I’m paid to do. I don’t always have the energy to perform that job well as well as I’d like, because my energy is being expended elsewhere in a way that those who do not share my neurotype couldn’t possibly imagine.

And as a perfectionist, that sucks. I like doing things well.

So recently, I’ve been going through a bit of an “I hate my brain“ period. I’ve been resentful of the fact that I’m a polymath, with a constant explosion of ideas taking place in my brain, but little ability to focus on one project, activity, or idea to execute well, and little time or energy to devote to these passions.

It’s not really the right time to chase my dreams – my children are still very young, both are neurodivergent and need a lot of input. I’m still getting to grips with new job and a new work environment. Various members of my family, and I myself, are experiencing a fair few health challenges.

Which means I find myself resenting the ideas that come to me. I can’t actually do anything with them, but I don’t have the patience to leave them be, or make a note of them to pursue at a future time when I’m more sufficiently resourced to do so.

After the away day, I was tired. So much listening. So much processing. So little rest. But as the working day finished earlier than usual, I decided not to go on a long wild walk, but instead to take my usual route home through several of the local parks but do so more slowly, more mindfully.

Rather than feeling the compulsion to experience the expansive, the large-scale, the landscape at macro-level (as is often the case when I chose to take myself outdoors to shake off my overwhelm), I was compelled to examine the outdoors in miniature.

I stood watching bees pollinating flowering bushes and shrubs. I was fascinated to note that certain types of bee preferred certain plants. I appreciated, for perhaps the first time, the what-should-be-damned-obvious fact that bumblebees (being insects) have bodies (like all other insects) that are articulated into three distinct sections rather than being a somewhat indistinct ball of fuzz with a head, legs and wings.

Closer to home I spotted a ladybird perched atop a valerian stem. I noticed its mouthparts, antennae, the articulation of its six limbs, its individual pattern of spots, and the smaller segmentation of its thorax, visible briefly on the underside of its body as it clambered over a leaf stem, beneath the modified wings that were its scarlet, polka dotted shell.

And then I saw the spider.

A garden spider, minutely patterned in greys, beiges and taupes. A particularly tiny example of the species.

It had just begun to construct a web between several valerian stems. The radial threads were already in place, and at the point I started to observe the tiny creature, it was in the process of strengthening the centre. As I watched, it finished this stage, before constructing a few non-sticky spiral threads to allow it to scamper to the outer reaches of the structure, before spiralling inwards with the final, sticky silk that would form the completed web.

The threads were so fine they were barely visible without holding my head at a tilt.

I had never before appreciated the meticulous complexity, or the beauty, of the web-spinning process itself.

In watching the story of the web’s construction unfolding before my eyes, I slowed down. I relaxed. I smiled. I took solace in nature doing its thing. Solace in the spider’s web.

And I appreciated my brain again. Appreciated my love of detail. My love of close-up examination that is just as strong as my love of patterns, connections and the bigger picture. My ability to enjoy such things without having to quantify them, or question whether or not I should be spending my time enjoying them.

I felt restored.


*I have Anna Nicholson of Transponderings to thank for the idea of ‘unposts’ – it’s useful sometimes to be able to post a set of uncategorised, stream-of-consciousness musings. I’ve recognised the need to be able to write without necessarily putting pressure on myself to come up with something polished.

Anna – I hope you don’t mind me pilfering this approach! ☺️

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Work Vignettes: awful away-day aftermath

Close Up photo of a cup of black coffee, and an Open Notebook With Pen

July 2017 (one year, almost to the day, after autism identification).

Our team is at a Marketing Away Day.

We’re in a hotel in a leafy suburb of the city. But we’re indoors and, aside from refreshment breaks and lunch, confined for the most part to one room.

It wasn’t the best of starts.

No in-advance agenda. No printed schedule available on the day. No timings provided.

The event begins with a series of “ice breaker” exercises.

***

One is a sensory game involving blindfolds, jigsaw puzzles and verbal instructions, with everyone assembled divided into smaller competing teams. We’re against the clock and against each other.

My severely deaf colleague is, of course, nominated as the instructions-giver – it makes perfect sense that she shouldn’t be one of the team members having to rely on listening. The other two of us don our blindfolds.

She shouts instructions and we try to assemble puzzle pieces into a coherent whole according to her words.

All I can hear, the entire time, is the shouting and chatter from the other people across the room. One male colleague’s voice, in particular, cuts through all else in sforzando bursts.

I’m wondering when the break is.

I get panicky as I work my way through the game. I can’t hear my colleague well enough. I yelp at her for clarification. The pitch and volume of voice grows as I struggle to remain calm and concentrate.

I’m wondering when the break is.

Then we have a music quiz. Name that tune. More my area of expertise.

But I’m so on edge I get disproportionately embarrassed whenever I get an answer wrong.

And overwhelmingly disappointed when our team doesn’t win because I jumped in too quickly to answer a question, but then lost my ability to speak coherently.

(I think the tune was Gangnam Style, but never mind that.)

I’m wondering when the break is.

***

Coffee break time.

One of the colleagues who organised the ice breakers approaches me.

“I’m so sorry. We should have realised that a sensory activity was a bad idea. I hope you’re okay.”

“It’s alright, I’m fine”, I lie.

***

Most of the day is spent discussing our marketing plans for the forthcoming year.

A lot of talking. A lot of listening. A lot of sidetracking.

Our team works well, and I like most of them, but as a group of people, many of them (myself included) have an endless need to jump in, make ourselves heard, and to say our piece.

crescendo.

accelerando.

affrettando.

I’m getting a headache.

The Fire Exit sign is backlit, and the light is flickering.

There are so many noises in this building.

Pipes clanking.

Footsteps.

Doors opening and shutting.

Old-building creaks.

Nothing is played in unison. There’s no reassuring pattern to the prodding and poking of each sound. I inwardly wince at sounds. And I inwardly wince in anticipation of more sounds.

Would it be okay for me to slip out and take a break unprompted?

I know my manager said this was fine, but I still feel awkward about doing so.

***

Lunchtime. We eat. I feel the compulsion to interact with everyone.

Then I escape into the hotel grounds for some quiet, and some greenery.

I’m a little late back to the training room.

***

Afternoon session. Action planning. Back to the talking. Back to the listening.

presto.

Headache intensifying.

Heart rate rising.

A cacophony.

I can’t focus. Everyone’s talking at once. How can I be expected to contribute anything to this?

“Excuse me! I’m really sorry, but I can’t concentrate because everyone’s talking at the same time. Would you mind trying to slow it down?”

I catch one colleague opposite me giving an exaggerated eye roll.

Shit.

I really to sort this out with her later.

***

The end of the day. Finished. Migraine is in full swing.

I spot the eye-roller.

“Hi! I just wanted to catch you and say sorry for earlier. I was having a really difficult time. I hope things are okay.”

“Um, can we talk about this tomorrow? I really don’t want to discuss it now.”

“Sorry, but it would be great if we could resolve it now. I don’t want to leave it hanging.”

I can’t leave it. I’ll be dwelling on it all night if we don’t sort it out now.

“Look. I think you were really rude earlier. We’ve all had a very difficult day and I don’t like being spoken to like that.”

Was I rude? I don’t think I was that rude. I’m sure I said “excuse me”.

“I know, I’m sorry. But this day’s been incredibly difficult for me to cope with. You know I struggle with all the sensory stuff, with listening and so on.”

“That’s fine, but it was difficult for all of us. You know, I bring a lot of myself to this job, to this team. I don’t appreciate you being rude, and I’d rather not talk about this any more.”

“Okay, bye. Sorry.”

Why do I keep apologising?

I feel my face getting hotter.

The pressure of the world forcing its way down upon me.

All senses smashing together as one. Atoms in a particle accelerator (but what remains after the smash in this case?).

A crescendo of emotions, inner and outer noise.

forte.

fortissimo.

***

I walk out through the main entrance gates, and as I walk, the tears come.

The world simultaneously closes in and zooms out.

Oscillation. Then a sonic boom.

I feel myself walled off from it by an invisible force field.

The tears stream.

I start to wail.

I punch my fists into my thighs.

I start to scream.

fortississimo.

I lean against a wall. I can barely hold myself up.

Another colleague finds me. Hugs me. Takes me to a nearby pub, buys me a drink and listens to me as I rant and rave. My headache remains, but I gradually become calm. My colleague offers kind words and no judgement.

Later, I take the long route home. stentando.


[Image: Close Up on The Coffee and Open Notebook With Pen, by Marco Verch. Creative Commons 2.0 licence.]

Catching the quiet

Full colour photograph of an orange “super moon” in a deep blue sky, to the left of which are the black, silhouetted branches of a leafless tree.

I must take my life’s rare moments of calm where I find them.

Catch hold of the string holding the serenity balloon before it floats away into the blue.

I cuddle my son to sleep almost every night.

After a busy, noise-filled day, my whirlwind, bounce-off-the-walls, never-still, never-quiet younger child has listened to me reading him stories – all the while attempting handstands, inspecting the slight rip along one side of his dinosaur poster that was torn into existence by an errant foot, examining a stray vehicle rudimentarily constructed from Lego bricks.

I have done my best to contain my frustration at interruptions and interjections, my exasperation at the small limbs whose darting, distracting movements scratch at the smooth canvas of my peripheral vision or knock the picture book out of my hands. I’ve remained calm and patient, despite my exhaustion.

(I have medication now. These days, I am far better able to manage bedtimes than I was six months ago. My temper has been tempered.)

At last, his eyelids are drooping. He issues a yawn. He curls up on his side. Finally, he tells me he wants the light off, and a cuddle.

I oblige. I draw the jungle-animal-patterned duvet up around him so that he is “nice and snug”. And I lie down next to him, on top of the duvet, and I put one arm around him. Nuzzle my face into his soft hair. Often, he asks me to take his little hand in mine and hold it tight, and I do so.

Some would say that I’m too soft. That young children need to learn to self-soothe; to get themselves to sleep without parental input. That he won’t ever be independent if he can’t fall asleep by himself. That I’m making a rod for my back and not giving myself enough of a break.

Maybe. I don’t believe so. He will fall asleep alone on occasion. But where’s the harm in giving reassurance to a small child who needs it? In letting him feel safe, secure, and loved? Surely that’s a better path from which to work towards independence anyway, if that’s the thing that’s desired?

Besides, I have an ulterior motive.

The room is darkened. Still. I am comfortable. And he is quiet. This is a break.

I catch and enclose that quiet in my cupped hands like a butterfly. All too soon, I know I will need to release it; let it flutter free from my hands’ prison. I will have to let the balloon float on.

He’s been asleep for a few minutes now.

Downstairs, I hear repeated bursts of the Danger Mouse theme tune. I hear his big sister running, careering and thudding around the living room; humming, clicking, singing, squealing.

Soon, she’ll want to talk to me. She’ll need to share her latest grand idea, impart the details of her latest imaginary world, or outline the plot of her latest work of fiction. She’ll want to talk about her day. Share her worries, excitements, or causes for celebration.

And I’ll listen. I’ll be there with her.

Just Not. Quite. Yet.

It’s been a busy day. Office greetings. Kitchen small-talk. Meetings. Listening. Processing. Dark glasses in bright rooms. Headphones to block out the noise. Smells. Heat. Sweaty clothing. Sore feet. Too much tea. Dry mouth. Plans to make. Tasks to prioritise. Work to do.

And before I do my next round of listening, I need, however fleetingly, to catch the quiet, and hold it close to me as I hold my son.


[Image description: Full colour photo of a deep blue sky lit by a yellow/orange “super moon” – a full moon that appears slightly larger than normal due to its proximity to Earth at a particular point in its elliptical orbit. To the left of the picture is the black silhouette of some leafless tree branches. Photo by Dave Grubb.]

What’s in the bag? A look at Mama’s stim kit.

Still life colour photograph, through warm dramatic “vintage” filter, depicting, in foreground: a sequin-coloured oversized pencil case, out of which spills folded “infinity hoops”, a black Tangle, a red-and-yellow stress ball in the shape of a Marvel ‘Iron Man’ helmet, a small three-pointed metallic fidget spinner, a fidget football, pine cone and seashell, a piece of grey foam, and other items partially in view. There is a smaller sparkly bag inside in which can be seen a small bottle of aromatherapy oil and a tin of lip balm. Behind these is a black bullet journal, and a red-zipped pencil case with in a colourful dinosaur print fabric.

As time has gone on since my formal autism identification in 2016, and as I’ve gradually learned more about myself – my autistic self – I’ve got better and better at recognising what makes me tick.

What makes me anxious, overwhelmed, panicked, angry. What makes me calm, happy, blissed out, joyful.

I’m increasingly better at looking after myself. But this ability to look after myself is continually pushed to its limits, and beyond. It seems that the more I learn to cope with and overcome, the more I get another load of difficult stuff shunted my way. By gosh, I still have a lot to learn.

But I’m far more positive in how I address this nowadays.

A couple of months ago, I put together a stim kit. I was sick of having random bits and bobs floating around in my bag, in each of my different coat and jacket pockets, or scattered around the house and on my desk at work. Sick of repeatedly misplacing favourite objects and toys. Things getting rusty, encrusted with grot, scratched or broken.

I don’t always need things to stim with, of course – dancing, pacing, singing, and many other activities don’t require ‘stuff’. But having small items to hand makes things easier in a lot of circumstances.

Different strokes for different folks

I wanted to give myself more options – a stim for every mood and every occasion. I’m always looking for things to add to it, but for now I’m quite happy with what I have at my disposal.

(Although yes, some of us do indeed like having things to stroke, and I’m still searching for a nice scrap of velvet ribbon…)

I personally let other people (both autistic and non-autistic) try out the stuff in the bag from time to time. It’s great to see someone get fresh stim ideas or discover something new that really works for them, and also fascinating to see what does and doesn’t help different people. I also like to de-mystify and normalise stimming as a ‘thing’.

You don’t have to share your stim stuff with other people, of course. It’s entirely your choice whether you do so or not. I like to, but we all have different preferences.

Very recently, I put something similar together for my daughter (six years old at the time of writing). Hers has some of the same items, but some variation – there’s more squishy and chewy stuff, which suits her.

I’d recommend that all autistics, and parents of younger autistic kids, consider assembling something like this – it’s great to have positive options for redirecting negative/self-injurious stim urges, calming oneself, promoting focus, as well as for sheer enjoyment.

So what’s in the bag?

These are just things that suit me. Everyone has different preferences, and it can take some time to work out what you might want in a kit, and what simply isn’t worth bothering with.

Here’s a rundown of what I have in mine.

Obviously, the main bag itself is a stim item. It’s an extra-large pencil case covered in gorgeous double-sided “mermaid scale” sequins. They’re fun to look at. Tactile and interactive too. As for what’s inside…

First, the things I’ve purchased with actual money:

  • Infinity hoops/kinetic flow rings: Oh. My. Gosh. These look and feel sooooo good.
  • Fidget spinners: I have two in this bag. One is yer classic plastic dooberry (a bit like this one) which I may or may not abandon, as frankly it’s not very good (it was very cheap); the other a “deluxe” metal spinner by Nomad that spins for aaaaaaages.
  • Fidget football polyhedron spinner: this particular metallic thingummy doesn’t spin for very long and is a bit flimsy (another thing that was super-cheap). But it kind of looks cool, and the individual coloured circles make a cool “pwoingy” noise when you wiggle them about.
  • ‘Iron Man’ helmet stress ball: squeezy proprioceptive anger release. Also good for maintaining strength and mobility in hands – something I struggle with because of some anatomical oddities. Plus…Marvel (I also have a Hulk fist on my desk at work).
  • Miniature slinky spring: fun to stretch, run fingers over and hold. The repeating coils are also soothing to look at. This one was from a multipack similar to this one, left over after we’d finished filling a load of party bags for my daughter’s last birthday party.
  • Tangle: one of the first “official” stim toys I bought. An old favourite, but these days gets less outing than some of the other more novel items. One thing that irritates me slightly, given my auditory sensitivity, is the clicky noises it makes when I’m fiddling with it – fine in a busy place, but not so great somewhere quiet.
  • ‘Unicorn poo’ glitter slime: comes in a pot, to keep it safe from glooping up the rest of the bag. Feels lovely and cool on the hands but leaves no mess. Squishy and squidgy. Sparkly.

Next, some free stuff (be creative. Look around your environment and see what you can find):

  • Pine cones: Fibonacci spirals! Patterns! Knobbly textured loveliness! Beautiful.
  • Larch cones: similar to above. But they’re also kind of delicate and pretty in a way that pine cones aren’t. More a visual thing than a tactile thing.
  • Seashell: more natural mathematical beauty. Knobbles, spirals, smooth bits, shiny bits, ridged bits. Lots and lots of tactile soothing loveliness. Calming colours.
  • Piece of packing foam: softer and squishier than a stress ball, this nevertheless provides a teensy bit of propriceptive stimulus, but is also fun to fold and unfold, wiggle around, or simply to run one’s fingers over.

As well as all of the above, there’s a sparkly “bag within a bag” (another visual stim in itself). This is for items that either:

  1. Smell and/or are balms/liquid, and would thus otherwise taint the rest of the stim kit;
  2. Are easily breakable (e.g. glass bottles);
  3. Are small and thus likely to be difficult to find in the midst of the main bag;
  4. Might get tangled up with other contents; or
  5. Need to be kept clean.

In here is where I keep:

  • Lip balm: nice to smell (I have a chocolate-y one), and good for keeping lips smooth and avoiding the scratchy feel of dry skin
  • Aromatherapy oils: good for a more intense (albeit only occasionally needed) fragrance hit – especially when there’s a need to block out more noxious nose-irritants. I have a couple of bottles of oil blends: ‘Less Stress’ (clary sage, lemon, lavender); and ‘Energise’ (peppermint, frankincense, lemon).
  • Handkerchief: the holdable soft fabric receptacle for the above-mentioned oils (sniffing straight from the bottle looks weird, makes my nose tingle, and means the cap is left off too long, which has the potential to cause deterioration to the active components in the oils.
  • Foam ear plugs (in a small plastic case): for when I need to dampen down noise, but noise-cancelling headphones just aren’t appropriate for whatever reason.
  • Communication necklace, from SpaceRobot Studio: to indicate to other people – usually when in autistic space – my level of willingness/ability to communicate verbally with others.

What else helps me?

In addition to these items, I always have handy:

  • noise cancelling Bluetooth headphones (plus something to play the music on, of course). Mine are Lindy BNX-60s, at just over £80 – my budget wouldn’t stretch beyond this, but they do the job well enough for my purposes.
  • sunglasses

They’re generally big-enough, frequently-worn-enough items for me not to lose them (thus far, at least…).

The other things that go everywhere with me are my bullet journal (learn more at the official bujo website), and my dinosaur pencil case, full of lovely coloured pens, pencils and fine liners. Doodling is a stim, but bullet journaling is another absolute life-saver in helping me organise my life, stay mindful, and keep as sane as possible.

When at home…

Over the summer, I also had made for me a weighted blanket and lap pad. These have been a revelation. If you want the low-down on why these are so helpful, Princess Aspien’s video on the subject is a good insight. They don’t come cheap (I couldn’t afford one for a very long time), and I recognise I owe my possession of these wonderful items to a certain degree of material privilege.

***

I hope this post is of some practical use to people.

I recognise that some items are more affordable than others, and this means that for some, it can be a struggle to meet your own sensory needs. If this is you, then I wish you all the best with finding something affordable that works, and I hope your circumstances get easier. In the meantime, look around your home. Look outdoors. Pebbles, seed cases, pieces of packaging (cleaned), bubble wrap, pine cones. Wherever you are, keep a lookout for something small and portable to stim with.

For everyone: I wish you well in finding the stims that truly work for you.


[Featured image description: Still life colour photograph, through warm dramatic “vintage” filter, depicting, in foreground: a sequin-coloured oversized pencil case, out of which spills folded “infinity hoops”, a black Tangle, a red-and-yellow stress ball in the shape of a Marvel ‘Iron Man’ helmet, a small three-pointed metallic fidget spinner, a fidget football, pine cone and seashell, a piece of grey foam, and other items partially in view. There is a smaller sparkly bag inside in which can be seen a small bottle of aromatherapy oil and a tin of lip balm. Behind these is a black bullet journal, and a red-zipped pencil case with in a colourful dinosaur print fabric.]

The more I know, the more I realise I don’t know.

Fractal spirals in a multitude of different colours.

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.]