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.]


#TakeTheMaskOff: authentic vulnerability

Cartoon drawing of Mama Pineapple, a white female-presenting person with chin-length red hair. She is clenching her left fist in order to make her bicep bulge. Tears are streaming down her face.

One of the things I’ve always hated about myself is how easily I burst into tears, and how often I cry.

That’s not to say I’m ashamed of it. It’s my natural reaction to surprise, bad news, overwhelm, discomfort, confusion, and a whole range of other scenarios, situations and feelings. It’s just how I am.

The reason I hate it is not that it shames me, but because it draws others’ attention to me at times when I’m feeling especially vulnerable. And my very dramatic outward displays of emotion make me vulnerable. I am left exposed, demarcated, spotlighted, in a way in which others are not.

I’ve been crying a lot over recent months. I’m cagey about talking too much about the reasons for this on this blog, because while I’m often very candid and open on here, many of those who read my words know me in person, including some people I work with.

Currently I’m contending with huge amounts of change. I’ve lurched from one period of uncertainty to another. This particular dark cloud, while it has evolved and morphed in shape and outline, has been hanging over me for well over eighteen months. Its form has been given greater definition in the past couple of months, but still that form has yet to settle into a state of finality.

I’ve had bad news delivered to me, and many people around me, in very exposing, “public” settings.

I’ve had reassuring structure and routine ripped out from under my feet. I see gaping nothingness in front of me, however much others around me try to reassure me that the unknowns will come to an end at some point.

I’m experiencing a form of bereavement – not over a lost loved one, but over the loss of a particular combination of relationships, things, environments, and a way of being that I’ve loved, and that has made me feel supported, contented and happy for a good few years, even while I’ve contended with many difficulties elsewhere in my life.

Throughout it all, I’ve been told to remain professional, and to “try to use my coping mechanisms” to manage my distress.

But I’ve been unable to prevent myself from crying.

I’ve been unable to prevent myself having meltdowns. At work. At home. In public places.

It’s all too much.

My sense of vulnerability raises my already-pretty-extreme levels of anxiety.

How do others perceive me?

Can I truly be regarded as competent? Professional? Capable? Able? Trustworthy?


The truth is, I can be all these things, and vulnerable. Such qualities are not mutually exclusive.

Since my diagnosis, I’ve always been open about my autism.

My reasoning is that I struggle to be quiet about aspects of truth about myself; and that I simply wouldn’t want to be around anyone who looked negatively upon me as a result of knowing that I’m autistic. It’s a part of me, and by rejecting my autism, anyone who does so rejects me.

But my emotional vulnerability is as much a part of my autism as my sensory sensitivities, my pattern-spotting abilities, my attention to detail, and the deep joy I experience when working on things that interest me.

I am not ashamed of that vulnerability, but I now feel I need to go further than such a state of neutrality; of not-negativity.

I have started to embrace it as a fundamental personal truth.

Sometimes, it means – as someone I know recently put it – that I’m “taking one for the team” in more readily displaying those feelings that others around me feel internally, but are unwilling or unable to convey to the outside world. I’m raising awareness.

My vulnerability is authentic.

My vulnerability is real.

My vulnerability is human.

And – perhaps perversely – my ability to allow myself to be vulnerable makes me strong.

Crying is cathartic. The pressure is released. This can sometimes take hours, but it does go. And when my tears have all been shed, and my wailing and sobbing has quietened, I’m exhausted, spent; but the tension is gone.

I know I’m alive, I’m here, and I can carry on.

Right now, I can’t keep up appearances. I can’t pretend I’m fine. I can’t currently wear the mask of acceptable social interaction very much of the time. I’m having to cope with too much.

And while crying can be useful, and I’ve done the Very Helpful Thing of making others aware of how serious things are, no-one should be repeatedly subjected to So Much Stuff that they dissolve in a puddle of tears on an almost daily basis. It’s tiring. It’s not a modus operandi I’m keen on.

Hence time off work, and limited time online. I’m trying to keep my life as quiet as possible at the moment. I need to rest, recover, and recuperate.

But I’m still here.

I’m authentic, I’m vulnerable, and I’m human.

This machine needs a tune-up.

Section from Charles Babbage's Difference Engine No. 2, one of the first automatic computing engines
A section from Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine No. 2

Right now, I’m struggling to overcome autistic inertia in order to write about my struggles with autistic inertia.

It hasn’t escaped the attention of some of my readers/followers/friends that I haven’t written or drawn anything for quite a while. Two whole months in fact. It’s not that I haven’t wanted to write things; I’ve had plenty of ideas for topics I’d love to write about. I’ve even heard the words of ready-written blog posts skittering through my head.

I simply haven’t been able to get my brain into a state where I’ve felt physically able to do it.

My last blog post was at the end of The Dreaded Month of April. I needed a month off in May – partly because of overwhelm and burnout from so much Awareness; partly because the rest of my life was also pretty hectic at that time. I also got a hefty whack of bad news early in that month, and then a whole load of work-specific stress, and then we got into June, and I still wasn’t anywhere near ready to write or draw again. And then more life stuff got in the way; I wasn’t ready, and anyway, I didn’t have time.

In some ways, I don’t actually feel ready even as I write this, but I’m desperately trying to break the ‘do nothing – feel awful about it – react to feeling awful by not wanting to do anything – do nothing – feel awful…’ cycle.

Currently my life is in a state of flux. Work-wise, I’ve passed from one state of uncertainty into another. I currently have very little structure to my working day, and I’m finding it harder and harder to contend with this as each day goes by. Having limited structure and routine, and fewer impending demands, actually makes me less resilient to sudden changes or disruptions than I would be if there were more going on. They seem starker somehow than they do when my brain’s computer already has the Responding to Stuff Quickly program already loaded, because I’m having so emphatically to switch my mode of being each time something – anything – happens.

I’m therefore easily startled, horribly irritable, even more fidgety than usual, and my blood pressure’s running a little too high.

I currently have lots of time. So why can’t I get started on the things I love, and that make me feel happy and fulfilled?

I need to be wound back up. Set in motion.

This post wasn’t intended to be a brilliant piece of writing. Apologies for that. I’m merely trying to pull this somewhat cranky machine out of the mud, clean it, oil its mechanisms and somehow get it moving again.

This post is written as much for me as it is for anyone reading. I do so desperately want to be writing again.

And I will.

I just needed to start somewhere.

[PS: I did, however, write an autism-themed blog post for work last week that I was actually very pleased with. I’m sharing it here in case anyone is interested.]

[Image credit: Lars Plougmann]

#AutismAcceptance/#AutismAppreciation doodles ‘n’ scribbles, no. 29: My brain likes to sabotage my efforts. A lot.

Digital cartoon image. In the top right hand corner, a disembodied pink brain with a smiley face, eyes and little cartoon arms chatters away. In the bottom left hand corner, Mama Pineapple, a reddish-haired white femme-presenting person wearing a purple long-sleeved top, looks upward in despair, whilst shaking both fists. The background is grey, and the brain, and Mama P, are surrounded by lots of words and phrases denoting complete and total distraction from the task at hand (whatever that is. Probably something very important and difficult).

I love my brain for many reasons. It has brilliant ideas. It sees wonder everywhere. It’s good at learning stuff. It allows me to experience everything both in fine, nuanced detail, and on a grand, dramatic scale.

It’s also a bit of an arsehole, because it tends not to let me get on with stuff.

[Image descriptuon: Digital cartoon image. In the top right hand corner, a disembodied pink brain with a smiley face, eyes and little cartoon arms chatters away. In the bottom left hand corner, Mama Pineapple, a reddish-haired white femme-presenting person wearing a purple long-sleeved top, looks upward in despair, whilst shaking both fists. The background is grey, and the brain, and Mama P, are surrounded by lots of words and phrases denoting complete and total distraction from the task at hand (whatever that is. Probably something very important and difficult).]

#AutismAcceptance/#AutismAppreciation Doodles ‘n’ Scribbles, no. 26: post-meltdown rainbow/star stim-doodle

A doodle, in portrait orientation, of five-pointed stars outlined in black fineliner pen, and filled in with colouring pencils in rainbow colours. Some stars overlap others, and they vary in sizes.

This image is much more overtly a “doodle” than some of my others. I started it in a manager’s office at work, where I’d been give some space and time to recover from a severe crying meltdown in response to some bad news, delivered some six months ago. after a period of uncertainty.

I see it as being more of a stim than a piece of art. The repeated stars somewhat irregular in position and size but nevertheless predictable in shape, the comfort and reassurance of a palette restricted to seven colours, albeit bright and cheerful ones, but in muted pencil instead of loud pen – all these things served to soothe the pain of my shaken, chaotic senses and emotions.

Plus, rainbows and stars. What’s not to like?

[Image description: a doodle, in portrait orientation, of five-pointed stars outlined in black fineliner pen, and filled in with colouring pencils in rainbow colours. Some stars overlap others, and they vary in sizes.]