Still unusual: A reflection on adulthood as an unidentified Autistic

Written by Gabi Compton 

CW: bullying, trauma, ABA 

The story begins in June 2015. I’m in America, meeting the founder of a comedy fundraiser which I’m hoping to bring to Britain. In the founder’s back garden, I have a Damascene moment where I recognise my lifelong divergence from social codes, cues, norms, niceties, and hierarchies, as Autistic.

I’m Autistic! Of course, I am. What else could I be?

It all happens in the twinkling of an eye. I’m forty-four.

Until that moment, I was one of the very many unidentified Autistics roaming the earth, not understanding why everywhere I went people communicated differently to me, sending me the message my direct communication, saying what I meant, was a problem.

Now, in this moment of recognising – this “lonely impulse of delight” – I understand I was made to be Autistic. Everything is as it should be.

I can grow into my Autistic nature, embody it, take pride in it – have the confidence to see that when neurotypicals (NTs) are affronted by my natural Autistic expression, it’s up to them to manage their discomfort. They have to learn to cope.

I first received the message I was unusual when I was seven. My teacher told the class I wasn’t normal. I walked out of the class, out of the school and home to mum. My mum complained to the Head. The teacher apologised. I felt power. I decided society’s power to oppress was matched by my power to resist.

Age thirteen, I read a book called I, Claudius by Robert Graves, telling me the disabled child who everyone laughs at, grows up to become Emperor. I considered this. Everyone laughed at me. Did that mean I’d grow up to be Emperor? Would I be any good? Imagine how it would be to put up with being laughed at, just like Claudius, only to find that just as he became Emperor, something nice would happen to me too. How hard would it be to believe Claudius’ story had something to do with me?

I didn’t know what made me unusual, but I did know it was valuable and that I wanted to keep hold of it, come what may. Sunny and irrepressible and often in trouble, I got on with being unusual, not knowing it was Autistic expression alternatively affronting those around me and making them laugh. Even when the laughter was mocking, hurting the fragile little girl I was inside, I weathered it, considering holding on to myself no matter what a better option than not listening to the still small voice telling me, “Be who you are, do what you do.”

For decades, I survived as an unmasked, unidentified Autistic, by way of allying with that part of society that valued unusualness while turning a blind eye to that part of society affronted by me. Just like Claudius, I regularly received the message that people like me shouldn’t exist. Yet here I was. I endured.

It got harder in my forties, when I started training for my chosen profession. Up until then, my live-and-let-live attitude – I’ll turn a blind eye to what’s annoying about you, if you’ll turn a blind eye to what’s annoying about me – had just about got me through. What had really got me through, was staying away from groups.

It was one thing being an unidentified Autistic, not hiding my unusualness, all the time I was in professions and communities where I could stay at the margins, away from society’s radar. It was quite another when I was on a two-year professional Diploma where fitting into the group was paramount.

The day the trainer forced my eye contact in the group, as an experiment in normalising me, has stayed with me for seven years – it traumatised me. I went along with the experiment, undergoing the huge discomfort of adopting unnatural eye contact in a group, afterwards sitting there, while group members praised the aligning of my unaligned eyes, gushing as if they were meeting me for the first time.

Only then did it dawn on me how society sees people like me – who I am to these people. Of course, Claudius had had it far worse, but still – I was never going to become Emperor at this rate. Was I?

In Roman times, in his pre-Emperor years, Claudius had done his best to tune out what today we’d call shaming, bullying and discrimination, by burying himself writing histories no one read. As a disabled individual, Roman society saw him as an un-person – exactly the kind of buffoon who’d have his eye contact normalised in a group setting, to give the abled ones a chance to laugh and feel power.

Claudius would have swallowed this violation of dignity; I followed suit. Yet something changed after my eye contact was forced – the “great reckoning in a little room”. The steely determination behind my butter-won’t-melt expression went up several gears. Powerless to address violation of my dignity in the real world, I took refuge in writing children’s stories.

I’d written children’s stories since I was seven. No one read them – just like no one read Claudius’ histories. But I didn’t write them for others to read. I wrote them to make sense of my place in the world.

It can be the case that when a child or adult is hit by trauma, they feel like they’re dragging about an incurable wound – the fate of many an Autistic outnumbered 25:1 by the abled ones (or “intruders” as I also call them).

In the face of trauma wounding us, it can help to tell the story of the wound, perhaps fictionalising the story, giving it the happy ending we were denied in life, while retaining its truth.

Such a story is called a “guiding fiction” or “healing fiction”. Such fictions “deepen events into experience” allowing us to “grow down” in our understanding of ourselves. The American psychotherapist, James Hillman, wrote well about such things.

At the point of having my eye contact forced, my dignity violated, while still not knowing I was Autistic, I couldn’t have told you a thing about Hillman, but I knew all about “guiding fictions”, having written them since I was seven.

I poured my strong feelings at my training’s betrayal of everything good into my children’s stories. My writing changed, to mirror my mood, becoming darker, funnier.

In the mirror world of my children’s stories, no one forced my eye contact or violated my dignity or shamed or bullied or discriminated or oppressed, because the alter ego I wrote about wouldn’t stand for it.

While in the real world, I followed Claudius’ example, swallowing every indignity, staying alive on an increasingly hostile planet, in my children’s writing, my alter ego fought back.

In the mirror world of my children’s stories, I was free.

In the mirror world, I built up my alter ego, giving him magical powers – he was now a magician!

As the magician in my stories, I knew there was something about me not like others. I knew that whatever it was about me that affronted – no less than being myself and doing what I did – was something I liked and wanted to keep.

As the magician, I wasn’t going to give up my true self to win a popularity contest. The contest was long lost anyway. Yes, the landscape in which I carried on in my magical way had got harder. Yes, society was more powerful than I thought, making me less powerful. But to redress this power imbalance between me and society, my author had given me magical powers. Take that, society! Society might have won a few victories, but it had seen its last win. I wasn’t changing who I was. I liked who I was. I’d only just got started.

As the magician, I was unassuming, much as I am in life. Though not masking my unusualness, I didn’t draw attention to it either. Until one day, all that changed.

I acquired a horrible coral tie (coral being the colour arising when pink meets orange and they both lose). Everyone hated my tie. But I liked it, saying to those affronted, “I like my tie.”

I saw my coral tie as my way of taking pride in my unusualness – showing it off. I saw everyone hating my tie as a clue to its value – the tie must be valuable to be so hated.

What was it about my coral tie that so upset the applecart? Was there something not entirely social about the tie? Did it offend a hidden societal code everyone knew but me? Why, when people encountered the tie, were they so hostile?

It turned out people in polite society didn’t wear coral ties. They were known for not doing it.

Polite society saw the coral tie as rude, almost as if it was cocking a snook (it was). As the magician, I observed society’s response to my tie, and kept on wearing it. My smile was wicked where it was only cunning before.

In the mirror world of my stories, I grew more and more outrageous as the coral-tied magician. In the last story in the story cycle, egged on by my twelve-year-old daughter, I planned a Misrule Day where kids and grown-ups swapped places, with kids taking back power, pushing pies in the faces of grown-ups, and grown-ups letting them do it, because it mattered, making life funnier for children.

Back in the real world, I was jumping through hoops, to qualify in my chosen profession – get on in life. Until suddenly I wasn’t doing that anymore. Instead, I was taking a sabbatical, looking for more comedic outlets for my unusualness than my chosen profession allowed.

Curious whether anything like the magician’s Misrule Day existed in life, I learned of an American non-profit set up to raise money for cancer charities by putting on comedy events where no one escaped without a pie in the face. It was 30 March 2015.

Less than three months later, I was in Columbus, Ohio, meeting the Founder. During that visit, in his back garden, following a promise to bring his comedy fundraiser to Britain (a promise I kept), I finally recognised myself as Autistic. Of course, I was! What else could I be?

When I was thirteen and read I, Claudius – the book that’s dominated this narrative, my “guiding fiction” – it was as if in Claudius I was given an image to live by, to grow into.

Finding a way to endure the shock and grief at the habitual shaming, bullying, discrimination and violation of dignity that accompanies unmasked Autistic life – unidentified or not – has ultimately steadied me. Just as Claudius stood it long enough to become Emperor, so I stood it long enough to put the experience in children’s stories, letting my writing lead me to that back garden in Columbus, Ohio, and a Damascene moment of recognition as Autistic.

In a sense, in that moment, I became Emperor. Everyone who knows who they are and says who they are is Emperor. I’m disabled. I’m Autistic. I’m out and I’m proud. I’m filled from top to toe with Autistic pride – Autistic pride incubated in children’s stories, embodied in a bolshie magician’s coral tie.

When everyone in the Autistic community is out and proud and seen in our infinite variety – so different from the Autism myths society spreads to keep us small – that’s when we’ll reconnect with the Emperor we all hold inside that society has been bashing out of us since we were children.

On the subject of those who bash Autistics, I’d like to say a word about behavioural compliance training of Autistic children. This training, embodied by Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA), claims to take an Autistic child – basically a savage, not properly a person – and civilise them. Civilising the child will involve forcing eye contact, quieting unquiet hands, trampling Autism underfoot, grinding Autism into the ground, making the formerly unaligned Autistic child look indistinguishable from their decently aligned NT peers.

ABA’s spokesperson, William Shatner, AKA Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise, has this to say to the Autistic community: “Every other person on this planet goes through a form of ABA when growing up. It’s being taught how polite society expects you to act. Having Autism isn’t really an excuse to avoid those lessons and grow up like a savage. Society will shun all who don’t behave. Do you want that?”

His question comes a little late for me, though. My experience of society shunning me goes back decades. Autistics can survive very well on the margins. We endure!

That’s my response to the ABA industry – me: Gabi. But I have an alter ego, don’t I?

As the magician, I don’t say much – actions speak louder than words. My smile is wicked where it was only cunning before. I’m out to upset the ABA applecart, and I’ve only just got started. I’m putting on my coral tie …

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