Odd Girl Out: An Autistic Woman in a Neurotypical World—Laura James
Read In: 2022
I need words. If I’m not reading words, listening to them, or saying them out loud, I feel jittery.
No one uses the word neutral when it comes to emotions, but that’s how I want to live. I want to experience life in neutral. Not feeling anything much. For me, the absence of sensation is better than experiencing anything too jarring, too unexpected, too new. I want to move through life with no sudden movements. Sameness is my anchor. I want each day to unfold quietly and predictably.
Peace is an even more elusive concept. The nearest I get to it is when I’m so caught up in researching something that my thoughts narrow down to a single point, like telegraph wires stretching to the horizon. Then the ceaseless chatter in my head is dampened to a bearable level.
I try hard to observe others, to notice how they behave. If I don’t do this, most people—even those to whom I am closest—can become blurred outlines in my head. And when I am not with someone, I struggle to form a mental picture of them—even Tim or the children. If I don’t focus on people, they fall into the background of my world.
If I know I have a train to catch at noon, the hours between getting up and leaving for the station are rendered redundant.
I can often begin relationships, but I don’t have what it takes to keep them going. I rarely see any of my extended family. I can go for a year without seeing my parents, aunts and uncles, or cousins. I find it overwhelming. I don’t know how to be involved with the minutiae of other people’s lives.
It’s easier to eat on holiday when there’s not much else to think about and interruptions of any kind don’t send my hunger scurrying. At home I find it almost impossible to feed myself consistently and I end up surviving on coffee, cigarettes, and chocolate.
Even tiny transitions hurt.
Talking when I’m feeling anxious is exhausting, as if I have to drag each heavy word from my brain to my mouth to form a sentence. What is there to say anyway?
When I see Tim or the children after we’ve been separated for a couple of days, I have to remember how to be with them all over again. They are familiar strangers. It is uncomfortable for all involved, and I hate it.
I take my suitcase up to my bedroom and begin to unpack. It feels so good to be back in my room. My sanctuary. Tim’s bedroom is directly across the hall. People find it odd that we don’t share a bedroom and make assumptions about our relationship. We tend to say it’s because he snores or is a restless sleeper. The truth is I need my own space. I cannot sleep if there is even the slightest thing to disturb me. I am like the heroine in “The Princess and the Pea.” I can only sleep if everything is perfectly right. I need crisp, clean linen, soft pillows, an open window, and an entire double bed to myself.
I have loved reading since early childhood. Some of my favorite memories center on books. I remember feeling free when the gates opened at the end of the school day and begging to go to the library on my way home. There was a whole world contained in those four walls, and it was a world encased in safety. When I am asked to imagine myself in a calm, peaceful space, I don’t think of lying on a sandy beach listening to the waves roll in or sitting at the top of a mountain. Instead, I try to conjure up the feeling of being in a London library of the early 1980s. I don’t have a great visual memory, so it isn’t a particular building. Instead, it’s an amalgamation of a number. Every library of my memory has common features: parquet flooring, a cool stillness, ladies behind the counter radiating a calm efficiency and pride in a job well done. Library sounds are my crashing waves. The metal on metal of the date stamp being calibrated, the almost imperceptible squelch when the stamp meets the ink on the sponge, and the dull thud as the date is stamped, indelible, onto a bookplate. I think of the papery sounds of cards being slipped into indexes, of the crackle of microfiche pulled from a drawer, and I feel a sense of calm wash over me. In libraries people whisper. There are no sudden loud sounds, no shouting, and no gratingly loud small talk.
Even today I enjoy reading a book much more the second time around. A first read can be filled with apprehension. What if I don’t like the way the story goes? What if something awful happens to a favorite character? What if I get bored halfway through after I’ve invested something of myself in the story? A second read is a joy. I know exactly what is going to happen, so I can immerse myself in the words and the subtleties in a way that would have been too stressful the first time. A good book can stop my head whirling. It can take me to another world, one where the fear can somehow magically be kept at bay. Books are my greatest pleasure. When the world is too loud, chaotic, or confusing for my brain to process, I would go to bed with a book from when I was a small girl and now am still able, at times, to lose myself in the printed text.
Maybe she’s a bit simple. I only heard that one a few times, but I rather liked it. Simple seemed to me a nice word. It sounded clean and unscratchy.
Copying neurotypical behavior is an exceptionally strong coping mechanism in most autistic girls. Unlike boys with autism, who are often happy to strike out on their own and just be themselves, girls tend to have a strong need to fit in. Mimicking the behavior, style of speech, interests, and social interactions of others provides something akin to a blueprint for life. Whereas neurotypical girls have an innate understanding of how to behave, autistic girls tend to have to learn these behaviors by studying how others do it.
[Tony Attwood] stressed that with autism the core features are generally the same for boys and girls, men and women. There are, however, key differences. He told me, “One is how girls react to being different. The other is the different expectations in society for girls. In terms of how girls react, I think one of the common ways is to observe, analyze, and imitate and create a mask, which delays diagnosis for decades until the wheels fall off. The girl will say, I don’t get it. I don’t understand it, but I will observe it. I will look for patterns. ASD is a study of patterns. That’s why someone with ASD may be so good at math. Often in ASD you are searching for the patterns of life—looking for patterns in interactions and then analyzing them, imitating them, and faking them.”
Strangely, in adulthood I have never suffered from social anxiety. As long as I am allowed to be myself, I’m OK.
Afterward people would stand around in the parking lot talking, the conversation often loaded with emotion, voices rising and falling. Exchanges I couldn’t understand. I think this is why I eventually moved to the country, as it is quiet, both indoors and out.
I make up stories for everyone I meet. Knitting together words in my head makes the person more real to me and somehow less scary.
I am never comfortable being the one who is not in control of a situation. I think I have a habit of “interviewing” everyone I come across.
One of the gifts of being on the spectrum is that the connections you can make are totally different. If you’re neurotypical and interested, they’re mind-blowing. Often I can’t even see what leaps someone has taken to get to that point. “When you look at it from this perspective, you can start seeing autism as an advantage, because we need people to think differently; otherwise we’ll never make any evolutionary leaps. Sometimes people on the spectrum can think so far outside the box that it’s really important.”
I had my group of friends, but there was always a barrier between us. We couldn’t connect. I knew it was my fault. Even when I briefly had a best friend, Helen, it didn’t work out. She was too needy for me. I felt subsumed by her, drowned out and confused by the intensity of what she wanted from me. She expected me to spend all my free time with her and didn’t like it if I saw any of the other girls alone.
Teenage life was difficult in so many ways. Our days were mapped out for us, and there was no respite. School, activities, homework, food—everything—had to be crammed into the waking hours, which back then were between 7: 30 a.m. and 9 p.m. Where was the time for me to daydream, to think, to read, and to be alone? When could I just be me? I like set routines, but I need to be in control of them. I was required to go from one thing I hated to the next. Being unable to understand my emotions, I wouldn’t recognize when I was becoming overwhelmed, when I was close to burning out or melting or shutting down.
Reading has been a lifelong special interest. In a good week I can read at least four books. In my teenage years I could read from the moment I got up to the minute I went to bed. I would find somewhere cozy to sit and not move until my book was finished. I would forget to eat or drink, I would ignore the phone if it rang, I would forget about the homework I was supposed to be doing. Everything would drift away, and it would be just me and the words on the page. Autistic special interests are often also a safety net. Being able to escape into something we love protects us from the harsh and confusing outside world. In girls, these interests are often not that different from those of their peers. It’s important to note that it isn’t the subject that’s unusual, it’s the fervor with which the interest is pursued. I read the same books as the other girls, but also more obscure titles. I went through a phase of reading everything Nancy Mitford had written, even though her books were not fashionable at the time. The obsession reached a peak when I discovered Jilly Cooper’s books. Lots of my friends read them too. They didn’t, though, read the same one twenty times over, beginning again as soon as they finished. They couldn’t name every character and answer questions that would stump a champion quiz-show contestant.
I like to read books about people who inhabit a landscape I understand. Most of the fiction I read is set in England, and the characters live lives not dissimilar to mine. I read them because I am fascinated by people but need the context of a world I understand. A book set in Iran or Syria would take me too far out of my comfort zone, and I would find it challenging rather than cushioning. I don’t like books where people suffer in a realistic way, or where there are real-world problems that have no understandable solution. I need to know that all will work out OK in the end. I read a lot of self-improvement books too, hoping to find a way to fix the things in my life I find overwhelming.
In my teens I would sit outside cafés on the King’s Road or in Hampstead flicking through the latest Jilly Cooper release, devouring every word. Not just because they were thrilling, fast-paced, and addictive, but because I thought they offered a blueprint for how people behaved. I genuinely believed that if I could just be more like a Jilly Cooper character, I would be a normal person. Sitting at a table on the pavement—usually with hair moussed into curly perfection and wearing my favorite stripy, three-quarter-length trousers and an oversized white T-shirt—I tried to learn how to behave around other people. How not to be seen as odd. I genuinely read Jilly Cooper as you would read an instruction manual for a washing machine. I thought I would find all the answers to life within these pages. Jilly taught me about human behavior, but she also taught me to appreciate poetry and to use it as a balm when things are uncertain. Since reading Rivals, in which one of the characters works on a biography of W. B. Yeats, I have often escaped into the yellowing pages of a favorite anthology of poetry whenever I have felt overwhelmed by confusing emotions.
“What I find in girls with autism—in comparison to boys—is that they are much more intelligent and creative in trying to resolve the challenges they face. “That can include the use of imagination. Sometimes it’s science fiction, sometimes it’s witches and wizards. Sometimes it’s being a journalist. Sometimes it’s being a person who has an appreciation and knowledge, for example, of Shakespeare, who understands the nature of Shakespeare and becomes an academic in that area.”
Had The Boy ever asked me out, things would have been very different. I would have freaked out. The evenings in his bedroom were as much as I could cope with. I got comfortable with the feeling of longing, but if that feeling had been reciprocated I would have panicked hard. It’s a pattern I have repeated through my life. Notice someone or something. Believe I want it. Pursue it. Land it. Enjoy the feeling of having it for a moment. Panic. Panic. Panic. It is an all-consuming fear. When I am heading for a relationship, a new job, parenthood, gym membership, a new friendship, or anything that requires commitment, I feel as if I may somehow become subsumed. That my life will be somehow forever changed. That I will have to stop being the whole me and instead become part of something else.
“Girls can sometimes make friends but not keep them, because of the intensity problem: either she hardly ever contacts her friend or she sends her twenty texts a day, and when the friendship ends, she feels betrayed and can be very black and white in her thinking. The other side of the coin is when someone seems too intense to the girl with autism. This is why I see autism almost splitting into two groups. There’s the extrovert intense, what I call the Italian drivers. They don’t read the signals, and they get upset because it’s not working. And there are the introverted, withdrawn, shy types. In other words, it’s either the person choosing solitude and being alone, or being highly motivated to socialize, but very upset when it doesn’t work.” The fear ahead of any commitment comes, I think, from an all-consuming worry that whatever this new thing is coming into my life, it will stop me from being able to pursue my special interests. That it will take up too much space in my head. That it will add a new layer of somebody else’s routine into my life. That it will be jagged and jarring and will want more than I am able to give. I have felt this in every relationship I have ever had. Emotions fall into only two camps: the ones that feel good and the ones that feel bad. Mainly they stay in their rightful places, attached, and don’t move. Thinking about money feels bad. Reading books feels good. In the case of relationships, they can veer from making me feel good to making me feel bad. Other people are so confusing, so again I strive for neutral.
I don’t believe autistic girls and women deliberately seek out “bad boys,” but I do think we might not be as equipped as neurotypical women when it comes to spotting men who might let us down or to reading the signs of a relationship. I asked [Tony] Attwood. He confirmed that Aspies often lack the insight needed to make sound decisions about relationships. “People with Asperger’s,” he said, “are often not very good at character judgment. They don’t spot predators. My concern is the high level of date-rape Aspie women experience and abusive relationships. In part it’s because of low self-esteem and not realizing that this person’s character is actually toxic.”
Often love by someone with Asperger’s is expressed through practical deeds rather than words and gestures of affection.
I am, though, subconsciously hungry for more social interaction than I naturally have in my life. My interactions are always at a slightly superficial level. Because I find neurotypical women slightly frightening, most new relationships I form tend to be with men. They are easier to read and more straightforward. They don’t feel slighted by my directness or my inability to commit to plans.
I was more intelligent than most of my classmates, so why could I not understand the work being set for me? My exercise books were a mess. Ink smudged with tears of frustration and sweat from my fingers as I tried to make sense of the problem laid out in the accompanying textbook.
I hated feeling different. I had stopped feeling like me. I still have this with any illness, even the mildest of colds. I cannot tolerate feeling anything other than my usual self. Illness—even simply a blocked nose or sore throat—causes me to feel uncomfortable. It is as if I no longer quite recognize myself.
Part of me had hoped he would rescue me from the bed I had made for myself. I have spent many years since longing for someone to rescue me. Every time life becomes too hard, I dream of a knight on a white charger, someone more equipped for life than I am, to make it all somehow OK.
I am a prisoner to my routines. Why can’t I be like normal people and go to the coffee shop at different times? It has to be this way, otherwise I cannot get on with the rest of my day. It feels as wrong as going to a meeting in a bikini or eating supper first thing in the morning. The fact is, if I don’t go to the coffee shop at 8 a.m., 11 a.m., and 4: 50 p.m., my day is ruined. It is a map for the day that makes me feel safe. But it’s also a prison I have built for myself. Within its walls, I feel claustrophobic and sad.
It can take me three hours to finish a coffee, and I like it at every temperature as long as the initial recipe is right.
I am at once brilliant and terrible at answering messages. If I am engaged with someone, I will answer immediately, so quickly they can’t keep up. If I am unsure, I will take days, sometimes weeks, to return a message. When I am in that confusing stage of trying to work out if I want to build a friendship with someone, I can take months to answer. This alone is one reason I struggle to maintain friendships.
There’s much talk about autism and empathy. One school of thought is that autistic people do not feel it. I am easily confused by abstract concepts such as empathy. I cannot put myself in someone else’s shoes, but I am probably one of the most compassionate people you are likely to meet. My compassion, though, comes in the form of practical support. I don’t have the tools to say “There, there” and listen endlessly to a problem being hashed and rehashed.
“Oh yes, absolutely autistic people feel empathy. Too much. More than neurotypicals. I think some of the social withdrawal [typical of those with Asperger’s] may be because of an acute sensitivity to negative emotions in others. It’s the equivalent of an emotional cold for the person with Asperger’s; it’s contagious. They are infected and they get the flu. It’s as if people with Asperger’s have a sixth sense for despair, anguish, irritation, negativity in other people. They can amplify these feelings and take them on board and realize it’s because they’ve been with so and so. Solitude can be a way of cutting this down. So the impulse towards solitude isn’t purely because of social confusion and social performance.”
When I was a child, my meltdowns were explosions. I would kick and scream, throw myself to the floor, cry so hard I couldn’t catch my breath. They were loud, violent, and messy. Now when I have a meltdown, it’s an implosion. I feel all the same emotions: the need to escape; an inability to control my feelings, my environment, and myself. There’s nothing spectacular to see when I’m having a meltdown. I may leave the room slightly more quickly than I would ordinarily, but despite being a huge deal to me, there really is very little for anyone else to see.
As a child I would see everything. If I looked at a lawn, it was as if I could see every blade of grass. It was too much. Too overwhelming. I learned to blur my eyes, so everything became softer. So I didn’t have to process so much information. Now I always carry a book with me so I can read, or I find some small detail—in this case in the Coke can—to look at.
Many couples would struggle with being together all day, every day. We don’t. We work easily together. We don’t sugarcoat our criticisms. I can see when we are with others that they find this disconcerting, but I like how straightforward it is. We are always completely honest about how we feel the other is doing on a particular project. We are never unkind, but there is no mincing of words.
“If you look at prognostic factors, people who find their niche and are able to put their energy into something they love, something that’s meaningful, do get a lot out of it. It doesn’t matter that they may not be as socially active, because they’re getting joy and happiness from what they’re doing. I guess it’s about identifying those things and supporting people to do just that.”
As well as not recognizing my own emotions and feeling them at a very muted level, I also don’t cope well with the emotions of others. I would like to live in a world where we all went along on a straight emotional line, never feeling anything too strongly.
I don’t understand why people impose so many rules on their children. I hated the lack of control I felt throughout my childhood, and I don’t want to impose it on the people I love most. They seem too small, too fragile to have to cope with pain and disappointment. I find it agonizing to watch their faces crease with sadness or to see tears roll down their cheeks.
I collect people online, those willing to analyze, debate, discuss, and console. I like these types of friendship. They don’t ask too much of me. There’s a shared interest, but if one of us wanders off and on to something new it really doesn’t matter. There are plenty of other people willing to talk.
“All special interests serve a function. It may be a sense of self-worth or a sense of identity because, if you’re good at Minecraft, then you’re valuable at school. And sometimes the interest can become a source of employment. There are a variety of reasons why the special interest is valuable for emotion management and also emotional understanding of the thoughts and feelings of other people. It is a thought blocker, a refresher. It gives you a sense of comfort and enjoyment, and it’s what I call an intellectual orgasm.”
He wants parts of me, but not all of me. He cannot understand, even after twenty years of marriage, that I am not going to change. I am a realist. I can take the good parts of someone and ignore the rest. I don’t think I get as bound up in relationships as nonautistic people. If I get irritated by something, I either remove myself from the situation or politely raise it. I don’t do drama. I can’t have a screaming row. It feels wrong and destabilizing. I can’t even defend myself if I am wrongly accused. I will do anything to keep things quiet and stable. On an intellectual level, I understand that compromise is supposed to be at the heart of relationships, that we are supposed to come together as one in a way that accommodates our differences. On an emotional level, however, all I feel is, How is this even possible?
It takes a while to accommodate anything new into my life, and it’s better if it slowly finds its way in. When something new happens, it knocks me off balance. It makes me question the other parts of my routine. A friend, Mark, once told me that many of his romantic relationships ended due to his nonattendance. I’m like this with too many things in my life.
People are unpredictable. They say one thing and mean another. They tell you things you want to hear, rather than the truth. Autistic honesty has a purity. Ask us a question and we will tell you the truth. One hundred percent. Undiluted by squeamishness. Unadulterated. Of course, I have learned to lie socially. If someone asks what I think of her new haircut and it looks awful, I can say I like it. I can’t, however, resist the urge to add some truthful reflection, such as, “Have you thought about wearing it back off your forehead?” or “Maybe if you had the back cut a little shorter it would make you feel less conscious of it.” I have to find a solution to a problem. If I’d have just said, “Wow, it looks awesome,” would she have felt better? Probably. But for how long? Surely people don’t believe the lies they are told all day.
I tend only to shop in one place at any given time because shopping is not an experience I enjoy. I buy good clothes, designed to last, and couldn’t contemplate facing a Saturday on the high street. That people do it weekly, as if it were a hobby, is such an alien concept to me.
My lack of response was the death knell for anything more romantic. For that I feel guilty. I simply don’t know how to respond to the kind of sweet nothings other women seem to crave. I panic that I’m supposed to say something back and that I’ll flunk it.
Sometimes I watch long-established couples in restaurants and notice the easy silences—how do they cope without words?—or the way they seem to dismiss the things the other says. I can’t get how they can be so impolite to each other and seemingly not care. Occasionally they row, and this sends my adrenaline spiking. I refuse to argue with Tim. I’m sure a psychologist would say this is unhealthy, that arguments are good, that they clear the air. But I just can’t do it. We are all, of course, the product of our genes and our environment, but the idea of confrontation makes me feel as if my very existence is under threat. I have no idea whether my autism is to blame for this, or whether it’s due to the fact that my parents argued frequently, but the result is the same. I have left jobs because people were difficult. I will apologize for things that are simply not my fault. I will be supplicant. I will leave the room. I will go to bed. Anything not to have to witness or be part of emotions running riot. Sarah Wild believes the issue is one of anxiety about possible outcomes. She says, “It’s really common for Aspie girls to refuse to argue and to not be able to deal with any difficulties in relationships or friendships. It can be that things are not going very well, but they can’t address them as they can’t control the outcome. They don’t know how the situation will play out because they don’t know if that friendship or relationship will still be there after an argument.
Nostalgia comes from the Greek nostos, meaning “to return home,” and algia, meaning “pain.” It literally means homesickness, but we use it somehow to mean looking back. That’s how I feel: homesick for a past I can never find again.
When I feel bad about something, I mainly shut down. I need to be alone, somewhere cool and preferably dark. Ideally I will go to sleep. I can’t process an event if I am talking about it or if someone is trying to help. Generally, if there were something that would make the situation OK, I would have thought of it myself.
I need my own bedroom and my own bathroom, something many people find strange and wrong. I just don’t think it’s natural for two humans to sleep together. Surely we need space and calm to be able to recuperate and get the proper restful sleep we need? I’m sure there are people who can sleep curled romantically around each other, but it seems to me everyone else is making a pretty big compromise.
Before my diagnosis, I had spent all my life waiting. Waiting to find out what was wrong with me. Waiting to fit in. Waiting for my life to begin. Waiting to find the proper me. Now, a year on, I realize I have been waiting for nothing and, like the middle goose, I will probably never fit in.
I feel the absence of the boys keenly. The silence of the house—something I have longed for all my life—merely underlines the absence of their noisy chaos. I find myself switching on the radio just to hear voices from another room.
In my younger years I tried losing myself in groups of friends, but it was too overwhelming, too exhausting. Slowly and imperceptibly people began to fall away. I stopped returning calls or replying to messages. Now I rarely see anyone on a purely social basis. I have hunkered down, but not in a good way. Tim and I have no joint friends. We don’t do the usual thing of seeing couples. We should have built a circle by now. A circle to encase us, not exclude us. Without the children, the shape of our lives has changed, and we don’t fit together any longer. I don’t want to be this alone, but I don’t know how to change it. From the outside my life looks so different from the way it feels on the inside. Others see me as hugely social. I know a lot of people. I have opportunities to do all sorts of things, but somehow I cannot say yes. There’s a difference between acquaintances one can hang out with and proper, nurturing friends. The kind I fear and avoid.
He came home from Reading, and we carried on in the same haphazard fashion as before. We found a sort of peace. Life just happened, and slowly we grew together rather than apart. In those intervening years we gave in to our eccentricity.
There is a Buddhist quote I have always loved. Only now, as I line up bottles of bath oils, does it make complete sense to me. In the end, only three things matter: how much you loved, how gently you lived, and how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you.