I used to teach Psychology A Level. In the first session of every year, I was invariably asked the same question by my students: ‘Does that mean you can, like, read my mind?’
I’m still not sure what the average sixteen year-old understands by the term ‘psychology’, but that’s not the point. I’ve been reminded of that question over the last year or so, whenever I tell people I have Asperger Syndrome. Apart from the ones who get sightly irate, as if I’m pitching for some special status that they can’t access, the response I see the most is gleeful fascination. Not, like, Can you read my mind? but, What are your special superpowers? There’s a visible thrill to being in the presence of a real life Rain Man.
I’m afraid that I quickly become disappointing. No, I’m not all that good at maths, and I can’t remember long sequences of numbers. I’m unable to look at a city landscape and then go home to draw it in minute detail. If you name a random date in history, I can’t tell you what day of the week it fell on. I would be particularly hopeless in a casino, because they’re noisy and full of people, and I wouldn’t be able to concentrate enough to finish a sentence, let alone count cards.
We have all been trained into a bizarre understanding of Asperger’s by novels and films. We’ve spent a long time talking about it from the outside, based on people who have been paraded in front of us as luridly ‘different’. The reality is not nearly so exotic. My everyday experience is often of sensory overwhelm, by loud noises and strong smells. When somebody touches me, I can feel a burn on my skin for half an hour afterwards. It seems to me that people spend most of their time simultaneously making noise and poking at me. I accept that this may not be their intention.
I’m sure there are gifts, too, but they’re just not as elaborate as people expect. I actually like my way of seeing the world, despite its complexities. I think people like me are often intensely creative and kind, but that’s invisible because the Aspies who recite train timetables are more other. God forbid that we might sometimes be more aspirational than odd.
But anyway, that’s why I wanted to write these letters. I want to try to share what it’s like to live inside my brain. I can’t express it in one, blunt essay. It will be slow, incremental. I hope it will challenge you into a different understanding. Most importantly, it will be my own, unique perspective, and not a state-of-the-union address. Other people will live autism differently. All of them have superpowers, but they’re profoundly human ones.
See you next week,