It’s easy to speak in simple platitudes about autistic people, but more often than not it’s better to let them speak for themselves. To really understand autism, one must spend long periods in the company of those on the spectrum, observe their idiosyncrasies and get to know them as individuals. As with everything, the picture you get is far more nuanced than anything you can in read in a book or a government-approved pamphlet. Like neurotypicals, autistic people have multi-layered identities, complex personalities and come from diverse cultural backgrounds. They are far from the one-dimensional creatures of popular film renditions.
Aside from autistic people themselves, the true holders of knowledge about the condition are the family members, the carers and those that spend days, weeks, months, years and decades working and living alongside spectrum folk. These people have a level of expertise that goes well beyond that of cold, calculated studies written in science and medical journals. They have a warmer, more intuitive rapport with people they don’t view necessarily as pathological, but as individuals with hopes, dreams, joys and frustrations just like the rest of us. People like this know and accept the challenges involved in caring for an autistic person and make accommodations for them in ways that allows them to carry on in the way that is at one with their atypical nature.
One such person is Jodie, a full-time employee at Jack’s college whom I first got to know funnily enough when we were colleagues at a local supermarket. She is a special sort of human being who lives to help others and bring joy to those who society tends to ignore. Her naturally compassionate nature is ideally suited to where she works. Indeed, such compassion is necessary to survive in a job which, due to the complex nature of autism and other complex neurological conditions, presents challenges beyond what most are used to facing in their daily lives. Some of the students and residents at the St. Elizabeth’s are both mentally and physically disabled and some also have epilepsy. Many require full-time assistance to carry out the most basic of tasks. Working with such vulnerable beings is an angel like Jodie who carries out her work dutifully and with a big smile on her face. It can’t be easy cleaning up somebody’s mess and having to placate those with challenging. Sometimes violent behaviours, but she does it because it brings her joy. It’s the sort of job that requires a level of dedication and selflessness well beyond the norm.
What is most special about such carers is that they are able to see beyond the disability and get to know the individual. They soon discover that behind the hand-flapping, the strange noises and the repetitive behaviours is a human being with a unique temperament. When Jodie contacted me to tell me she was working with Jack and that she considered it a real pleasure to do so, I was touched beyond words. Having been conditioned to do all in my power to conceal Jack’s disability and to be ashamed of his obviously autistic behaviours, it was consoling to hear someone I know to be totally sincere to say such nice things about my dear little brother. Usually, those that do say nice things come across as quite phony and patronising, but, through working alongside Jack and getting to know him personally, Jodie like us was able to delve a little deeper and understand that, much like everyone else, Jack is a person and not just a disability. She described how she got to know him at ‘Pets Corner’, a part of the college where the students get to interact with and care for a range of animals. Jodie told me how enthusiastically Jack feeds the rabbits with sticks of carrot and celery. It was a heartening thing for me to hear given how indifferent I thought Jack was towards animals before. She also described how intrigued she was by what she could hear Jack was saying to himself. It all sounded interesting, but of course she had no idea what it all meant! After I explained to her that he does the very autistic thing of reciting large chunks of dialogue to himself, she was clearly thrilled. When one understands the reason why, one develops a much fuller picture. Autism can often seem mysterious to an outsider, but with a little perseverance and time spent in the company of those on the spectrum, it begins to make a bit more sense.
Another discovery we as a family made during our time networking with other autistic families from across the UK is just how different autistic people are. This shouldn’t really have been much of a surprise of course, but like a lot of people, we all believed that autism was a uniform condition. Instead, we met autistic people with various personalities and temperaments. Some were very pleasant and agreeable, some weren’t so friendly. Some were gregarious and chatty, and some were painfully shy and introverted. Some were adventurous in their eating habits, and some were severely limited. What we discovered was that the label of autism should not define the individual. As the popular saying goes, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”
It’s for this reason that I fundamentally trust people like Jodie, who work with a broad range of autistic people each day than I do any clinician or any self-appointed spokesperson for the autism community. Whereas the clinical expert sees patterns of behaviours, sets of emotional responses and activity in the brain, a carer like Jodie sees a human being and forms with that human being a bond built on a solid foundation of love and empathy. Such an intimate one-to-one connection is not something that can be quantified, peer-reviewed and backed up by double-blind studies. It has to be felt and it is that level of feeling for autistic people that I want to encourage more of. Science may help us to conceptualise and frame the condition, but the lived experiences of autistic people and those of the family members and carers who are close to them, convey the true soul of autism.
Sargon of Akkad is a YouTuber who has gained a substantial following in recent years. I watch his videos from time to time, particularly while I’m doing the dishes or preparing dinner, and generally enjoy the content in them, despite not always agreeing with everything that he says. Like him, I’m dismayed by the loud coterie of PC bullies, third-wave feminists and thin-skinned offence-mongers in our society at the moment. And like him, I’m also a classic John Stuart-Mill liberal and a free speech absolutist who prefers civil discussion and dialectic to merely shouting down one’s opposition.
That said, I find myself in the uneasy position of being a fan and simultaneously being quite dismayed by his use of “autistic” as a pejorative. Both Sargon and many fellow YouTubers have popularised the infamous “autistic screeching” meme across the internet. Such a stereotype of autism is crude to say the least and one that plays into a very simplistic and derogatory view of a disability that is both complex and varied.
Now, I am on the autism spectrum myself, albeit at the very mild end, and I don’t find the meme personally that upsetting. I can tolerate offensive memes and slogans without taking them too much to heart. For example, if a comedian says something I don’t like, I just won’t bother watching them. I’m not going to start a campaign to shut them down because ultimately I don’t consider myself a moral authority with the right to police people’s views and speech. That said, I feel the need to voice my opposition, in the name of free speech, to what I see as the perpetuation of widespread ignorance of a very real disability that ought not be trivialised during a time when autistic voices are straining to heard in society.
I don’t think Sargon, who has a large following from people across the political spectrum, considers that with his substantial outreach, he perhaps ought to be more vigilant and responsible in his speech sometimes. With his sort of power to shape people’s attitudes does come a degree of responsibility and in this regard I feel that he is being complacent. Autism, as he implicitly claims, does not equate to the humourless fanaticism, inflexible thinking and a lack of empathy displayed by the PC fanatics he often condemns. Comparing fanatical postmodernism or third-wave feminism with autism comes from a place of deep ignorance and prejudice about a condition which is only just beginning to be properly understand. Autistic people are a varied bunch of individuals with a multitude of different strengths and weaknesses, but to compare us to those especially prone to collectivist herd mentality is so deeply wrong. Autism stems from the Greek ‘autos’ meaning ‘self’ and autistic people, generally speaking, are fierce individualists who are perhaps some of the least susceptible to crowd pathology precisely because they often value truth and logic. That’s often why any attempts to collective autistic people into groups and communities fails and why organised religion rarely sits well with our relentlessly sceptical and critical minds.
I’m asking Sargon to re-evaluate his use of autism as a pejorative. It does reflect very badly on him in my opinion and undermines a lot of the serious issues that he discusses. I’m not against him and actually think he’s a decent guy underneath. I just wish he paid attention to where he is wrong sometimes. After all, the essence of being liberal is to be confident in what one says whilst maintaining a strong possibility in the back of one’s mind that one might also be absolutely wrong.
Japan is not so much a destination but a life’s work. It’s a notoriously tricky place for a Western mind to decode and even begin to fully understand. Aside from the common reference points to karate, manga and sushi, few Westerners delve deep into the heart and soul of Japan and begin the rather daunting task of finding out what really makes the people of this faraway nation tick.
I myself am an inveterate Japanophile. Since I was a teenager, I’ve studied the Japanese language and culture, and yet often I still find myself perplexed by the paradoxes and strange obsessions of its people. Unlike a lot of Westerners though, I absolutely adore the Japanese preoccupation with routine, ritual and tidiness. It sits perfectly well with my Aspergian nature which thrives on rigidity, structure and a predetermined order. I also love the intense Zen-like focus and often maniacal attention to detail of Japanese artisans, cooks and craftsmen. As a nation, they also put value on honing a single skill like soba making or flower arranging for extended periods of time. It reminds me of my own Aspergian tendency focus on a single special interest which goes way beyond that of the norm. To focus on one thing and one thing only is a shared characteristic of many us Western Aspies and many Japanese. It is a natural proclivity we have in common which, I think, explains why so many of us are drawn to Japanese culture.
A fellow Aspie I knew at school who was one of only 4 people who opted to study Japanese on top of our conventional workload, went on to live in Sapporo. He’s convinced he was born in the wrong culture and that he was predestined to settle on the other side of the world in a land that just somehow makes more sense to him. His special interest at school was manga but since maturing into adulthood he’s grown to appreciate more traditional aspects of the culture including the Zen art and wabi sabi philosophy.
Japan and its culture also provides an alternative reality for many Aspies and a momentary escape from the grim realities of existing on the fringes of their own native Western societies. Unlike America or to a slightly lesser extent the UK, Japan prefers and respects the quieter type, the introvert and the obsessive. It encourages people to seek a disciplined inner-focus to one’s life over exhibiting overt and excessively loud displays. Many Aspies I think gravitate to Japanese styles and artforms for this very reason. They instinctively get a good and unthreatening vibe from it. As a youngster, I remember being dropped off at the local library and taking out every book about Japan that I could get my hands. A quarter century later, I’m still doing exactly the same.
Since I was a young boy, I’ve been absolutely besotted by language. During childhood visits to the centre of London, I’d delight in the array of tongues being spoken by foreign visitors to the city and, in my typically autistic style, I would imitate what they were saying. Echolalia I was soon to discover is one of the best ways of learning a language. After all, that’s how babies and toddlers learn to speak.
At age 10, I received my first German lesson. I thrived in it. After a few classes, my teacher remarked on just how astonishingly quickly I was able to soak up vocabulary and just how instinctively I was able to grasp the language’s complex grammar. I was motivated enough to study the language outside of school hours and within a few months, I was speaking with the fluency of a native speaker. My pronunciation remains near enough flawless to this day.
Don’t ask me how I do it exactly because I don’t know. I can only describe the process of learning a language as similar to creating a beautiful work of art. Constructing sentences is a bit like sculpting something magnificent. Doing so requires great care, vision and reverence for technique. The reward I get from conveying my emotions in a language not my own is immense.
I am now fluent German, Mandarin and French. I also can get by in French, Italian, Cantonese and Japanese. Being able to speak several languages makes me a richer person and I am very proud to boast of my linguistic talents. I suspect that my autistic brain gives me a distinct advantage when it comes to picking them up, too. For one thing, I’m far less conscious of making a fool of myself when I try speaking a new language. A lot of people are held back by the fear of what natives might think of their bungling attempts to ask for something in a restaurant say, and resort to just speaking English. I go all in and have faith in my own instinct. I banish all doubts in my mind and go for it. This approach pays off and expands both my confidence and ability.
Being autistic also enables me to concentrate on learning a language for extended periods of time. I persevere when others would just give up and I commit huge lists of words to memory. They tend to stay there, too.
If you’re autistic and multilingual like me, do contact me on Twitter @tclementsuk. I would love to share experiences.
This is a conversation I had recently with journalist and fellow battle rap enthusiast, Pete Cashmore (pictured, left). Both he and I have battled mental health problems for a number of years and thought it would be good if we could discuss how hip-hop has helped us in our respective struggles to battle our respective demons. Pete was also especially keen to learn more about autism given that a few battlers from various parts of the world have the condition, notably Charron from Canada and Zain Azrai from Malaysia. The former is one of the top 10 battlers in the world and I think that being on the autism spectrum has been a huge advantage in terms of mastering an art-form that requires a lot of preparation, creative intelligence, linguistic fluidity and, if necessary, the skill to improvise or freestyle, which is extremely difficult to do.
Anyway, here’s our chat:
Pete: I’ll get the ball rolling, shall I? My first question would be: I’m bipolar and you are an ‘Aspie’, as in Asperger’s Syndrome. I think a few people have a rough idea of the meat and potatoes of what bipolar involves, but maybe Asperger’s less so. Can you sum it up as best you can?
Tom: Okay, basically Asperger’s Syndrome is a condition that affects how I perceive the world and relate to others. It’s not an illness but a difference in neurology that has both good and bad sides. On the one hand, it enables me to focus on tasks for extended periods of time, to take in large amounts of information and in my case, to speak numerous foreign languages fluently without any trace of an English accent. On the other hand, I struggle when it comes to things that come quite naturally to so-called ‘neurotypicals’ (a term we Aspies use for those who aren’t Asperger’s) such as navigating the social world and generally getting on in polite society. We Aspies tend to be at the extreme end of being introverted individuals and basic skills such as engaging in small-talk really don’t come naturally to us. In fact, being in a large gathering or in a noisy venue like a pub or club can be especially distressing for us. Autistic people tend to see life in much higher resolution and our brains often take in too much information and go into a sort of shutdown. This makes it extremely difficult to form lasting friendships, find romantic partners and schmooze our way up career ladders. While our unique talents, whether programming, linguistics or engineering, are often prodigious, we generally underachieve in life many of us languish in unemployment often due to an inability to get past the interview stage.
Pete: Thanks for that. This rather begs a question that I was expecting to come later but there’s so much in there that directs me towards it, which is: Do you think this informs your love of rap music in some way? It is, after all, the most information-heavy of modern musical forms. I’m also interested because I know battlers with Asperger’s who seem to be very good at preparation on short notice, as if there’s a heightened sense of focus.
Tom: Definitely. I was speaking to Dan Bull, a UK rapper very popular on YouTube who also has Asperger’s, about this the other day. There seems to be a natural affinity for those on the autism spectrum with lyric-heavy genres like hip-hop. Our neurotype gives us a unique love of patterns and the rhyme schemes and repetitive loops of hip-hop really seem to sit well with us. I would say it’s actually quite therapeutic. Dan himself, attributes his unique talent for wordplay, assonance and rhyme construction with his differently-wired brain. Like him, I’m a very awkward middle-class interloper in the hip-hop genre but my astounding memory for lyrics, album titles and rap trivia made me quite popular with the cooler kids at school. As far as preparing for battles, I’d imagine Asperger’s is a real benefit. As soon as we get down to a task, there’s really no stopping us and our ability to focus with laser precision on the job until it’s done perfectly makes us suited to doing things on short notice.
Pete: I’ve found that the battle community is home to all kinds of mental health phenomena and also that it’s kind of the ideal place to, if not leave them at the door, then certainly embrace them, because it’s such a non-judgmental place. All of humanity is in there.
Tom: Definitely. Battling is a great leveller where people from all backgrounds and of all different temperaments can get together and have a good old laugh at each other. We live in an era of stifling political correctness where people are too afraid to broach certain topics or aspects of a person’s being. The fact that battling can break certain taboos without being malicious makes it a very unique artform and one that promotes an egalitarian atmosphere. There’s something very humane about the experience of battlers exposing their weaknesses, foibles or defects to a large audience at be able to have a beer with them afterwards. For autistic people, who tend to be highly anxious and sensitive, facing one’s fears like that head on I imagine can be a very cathartic experience, t
Pete: As you know, I spoke a lot to depression and bipolar sufferers in the past and the general response seemed to be: What’s the worst anyone can say to me, given the thoughts that I have had myself? I think it was Mr 13, the west London rapper, who said that depression had given him a granite head, which is a quote I liked.
Tom: Exactly. It can be quite a relief to acknowledge the hard truths about conditions like Aspergers rather than have people in polite society pussyfooting around them. When somebody confronts you with it head on in a battle it often elicits a laugh. Through the medium of rhyme and humour, a battler can reveal the deep recesses of trauma and pain in the subconscious of his opponent and this can be an immensely satisfying experience for an audience to watch. I think that’s why battle rap has such enduring appeal among its faithful. For a brief time in the battle rap arena, you feel oddly at peace with all the paradoxes and divisions in the world. Nothing seems quite as bad as it might do in the outside world and the use of humour, wordplay and creative insults has the effect of ‘levelling the playing field’ between individuals often travelling very divergent paths in life.
Pete: When you have a creative spurt… Let me rephrase that, actually. Do you, as I do, have ‘spurts’ of creativity when the writing seems to pour out of you? The bipolar condition kind of makes this a given, some days it’s like you’re not even in control of it, you’re just a conduit. Is it the same with Asperger’s or are you ‘on’, as it were, all the time?
Tom:Well, around 50% of people with Asperger’s also suffer with depression and I happen to be in that 50%. That depression appears to a manifestation of low self-esteem, at least in my case, and this certainly hampers my productivity when it comes to writing. I write quite sporadically, but when I do I do so for very long periods of time, sometimes without sleeping or eating. Generally I rely on a spark or an idea that really gets my creative juices flowing. I wish I were one of those people that is able to summon up great ideas at will but unfortunately I’m not. Depression also has an uncanny ability of making you feel as though your life is meaningless. Such a mindset is hardly conducive to you producing great works of literature. I managed to find a period off from my depression, a window of about 3 weeks, and it was in that time that I wrote my memoir ‘The Autistic Buddha’. I actually lost a stone in weight during that period as a result of skipping meals and subsisting entirely on a tin of Celebrations.
Pete: Sleep is actually a massive issue with depression, I don’t think people realise quite how much. But I digress. Tell me about the appeal of Buddhism.
Tom: Buddhism really isn’t what a lot of Westerners think it is. The Dharma is a kind of psychological method that allows human beings to cope with the very hard truth that life is full of suffering. It by no means offers a trite solution to suffering but it what it does do is enable its practitioners to live nobly in the face of it. Unlike a lot of Western psychiatry, where the emphasis is on you and digs deep into your past, Buddhism focuses entirely on the present (the notion of mindfulness) and encourages you to adopt more altruistic behaviours. Science reinforces the idea that being more compassionate and less self-absorbed leads to a calmer, more contented existence. It was after having read about Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk reputed to be the world’s happiest man according to scans done on his brain, that I was encouraged to start reading and practicing meditation. It really has improved the quality of my life and the best thing is, I didn’t have to abscond to the Himalayas, renounce all my belongings and sit in the lotus position all day!
Pete: This is interesting, because what I’ve found with CBT and various other therapies is that altruism is very much off the menu. It seems to be all about what’s good for YOU, what makes YOU feel better, how to treat YOU as best you can. Now, I have crushing self-esteem and self-loathing issues and I find that when I start doing that, all I feel is: You’re a selfish piece of shit. I have a touch of anhedonia to go with the bipolar, I find it difficult to take pleasure out of anything. Which again takes us back to music because, unlike sex, unlike alcohol, unlike comforting food, that and film are basically my two sources of pleasure without self-flagellating guilt.
Tom: Yes, which is why I think Western psychological methods like CBT could learn a lot from the Buddhist emphasis on compassion, empathy and altruism. You know when you do something good for somebody like volunteering for needy people, you feel good, right?
Pete: You see, I don’t. This is how my mind is wired up. When I have done charity work or acts of kindness (and, I mean, I once went into a war zone dressed as Santa Claus dragging 15 stone of presents on my back) I have somehow programmed myself to think: This isn’t genuine good because ultimately you’re doing it for you.
Tom: That’s true. You are ultimately doing it for you, but does it really matter? If it’s making their life better in the process as welll as making you feel better, then it can only be a good thing. The Buddhist philosophy is that we’re all interdependent and that being ego-centered is at the root of misery in the world. Acknowledging the fact that we are all reliant on others for our own happiness makes us naturally more inclined towards altruism in pursuit of a better world. It sounds highfalutin, but just doing simple things like making your mum tea, making time for your elderly relatives and helping your partner cook dinner are habits we can all cultivate in our daily lives. Such acts take the focus off the constant chatter of negative thoughts and dissolves the division between subject and object. That is when you know you’re engaged in something meaningfull. Your nervous system is even attuned to tell you by gifting you with a nice hit of dopamine.
Pete: Do you have any particular artists who help you out of ‘the bad places’?
Tom: Yes, especially artists with a down-to-earth sort of style. I’ve long been a fan of Verb T’s music. I can tell just from listening to him he’s a super nice guy, the sort of guy I’d like to be more like in fact.
Pete: He really is, I love his battling style as well. It’s good when people maybe shy away from being so demonstrative and let their words do the work.
Tom: Yeah, man. Totally unassuming presence. Really admire him for that and the fact he’s been in the game for so long.
Pete: There’s a triptych of Blak Twang tracks – Real Estate, Dettwork South East, Kik Off – that just kill me. They feel like… the universal London experience. Compressed.
Tom: Absolutely. Music, especially hip-hop, is especially good when it has a strong sense of place. Not usually a fan of the guy, but Kano’s last album ‘Made in the Manor’ was dope for that very reason. Loved the fact he asserted a kind of London-patriotism much like Blak Twang did.
Pete: One person we’ve neglected to mention in all of this is Charron. Now, Charron is severely autistic, to the point that he has to travel with a helper to enable him to deal with simple tasks like actually getting to a venue. And yet in terms of ability he must be among the top 10 in the world, battle-wise. Do you look at him and think, “I fully understand why”?
Tom: Absolutely. I always suspected Charron was autistic given how much time and energy he has evidently devoted to perfecting his craft. His style is one that harks back to the battle rappers who, rather than being stand-up comedians, really tried to degrade their opponents. Autistic people stick to a formula they know works as they tend to dislike uncertainty (something that might explain Charron’s travel anxieties). Charron has evidently hit upon a formula that works well for him which is to get to the core of what really bothers his opponent. He pokes them in their most sensitive spots repeatedly in a very clever, well-structured and forceful way. That said, he’s also studied the humourous elements of battle rap and incorporated them into his rap. I notice even his humour, much like his rhyme structure and delivery, sticks to a pattern which is what the autistic mind likes best. We see life as patterns within patterns within more patterns.
Pete: As an aside, did you see Juan’s autism flip against him?
Tom: I didn’t actually. What did he say?
Pete: Well, Charron ‘pocket-checked’ him and Juan said, “Why did you do that? I thought you people don’t like change…”
Tom:Awesome. See, this sort of stuff is good in a way as it brings autism out into the open even if he’s being sort of teased by his opponent. It broaches a difficult subject in a way that demonstrates knowledge rather than ignorance about the condition which is a good thing. By the way, I’m curious, do you know much about Charron’s life and what he’s like as a person outside battle rap?
Pete: I know nothing at all. And I have looked, but whereas a lot of guys almost turn their outside life into a soap opera, Charron’s is very guarded. He’s this guy who lights up on stage but stays away from the general push and pull of the outside life, which is in itself very interesting. Having briefly spoken to him he is a genuine enigma. He’s like the polar opposite of, well, Enigma.
Tom: That’s interesting. Autistic people tend to be very private people who require a lot of personal space. One thing almost all people on the spectrum speak of is a “social hangover” after say a big gathering. The need for alone-time is pronounced in us autistics. In my case, I need several days of isolation to recover from information overload at say a DF event. Autistic brains are said to experience reality in much higher definition. Sound is more amplified, small details most filter out are more noticeable to autistic minds and social interaction in the form of small talk does not.come naturally and so requires a concerted intellectual effort to read facial expressions, non-verbal cues etc.
Pete: That is absolutely fascinating. The amplification of sound – and at battle events, that basically means interacting with people – must be quite an exhausting thing.
Tom: I’m guessing Charron is committed solely to the art-form and is less preoccupied with the social side of battling.
Pete: Yeah, I’m guessing that when they talk about ‘The Zone’, his must be so much deeper than many are used to. Can I bring Soul into this for a minute?
Tom: Yep. The exhaustion can quickly spiral into anxiety, sleeplessness and yes, you.guessed it, depression. The bitch goddess of all mental illnesses.
Pete: Absolutely. Now, Soul has been extremely open about his OCD, but I personally only know a bit about this condition and am not sure I could talk at length about it but it strikes me, again, that here is a condition – fastidiousness, the need for complete rectitude and order – that lends itself to battling. But what interests me with him is – when do you get to that point where you turn yourself off? When do you think: Okay, I can leave these bars alone now, they’re hosed? And, as I suppose I ask of guys on the autism spectrum, when does it become a curse? Because as someone who has battled, I know it can become a HUGE pain in the ass when you can’t just let your bars go to sleep so that you can too.
Tom: A lot of people with autism develop OCD symptoms, especially when their “special interest” becomes their entire fixation in life. They often have to find a sympathetic therapist who’ll find ways of organising time more effectively and encourage moderation in one’s life. Obsession and perfectionism can drive people to greatness but in many they can real curses which inflict terrible suffering on an individual. OCD is no fun for those who experience it genuinely. People trivialise it or laugh it as though it’s some benign quirk, but it sure ain’t.
Pete: That’s the dichotomy, isn’t it? You’re between a rock and a hard place, the ‘this will help you’ rock and the ‘you’re betting all cards on this’ hard place. I know that the things that were helping me personally with the getting used to bipolar, eventually became the things that were exhausting me. I’d be fascinated to talk to a Soul or a Charron or a Bender on that point because, well, the things that can ease our pain also can kill us.
Tom: That said, obsessive people often exceed what ordinary people can manage. But that means constant rumination, added anxiety and physiological damage from poor diet and lack of sleep. I collapsed from exhaustion in public once after an entire night spent writing my book. Not good at all.
I’m a cowardly person by nature and I’m not afraid to say it. Given the choice, I would rather avoid conflict than engage directly in it. When it comes it things I’m afraid of, such as standing out to bullies or admitting to lies I’ve told, I run away and retreat into a protective bubble rather than summoning the courage to voluntarily face them. So when a self-described “intersectional feminist” countered some remark I made on social media and proceeded to accuse me of being a bigot and a misogynist, I caved in and eventually deleted my whole account. I had no real tools for standing up for myself and, to put in bluntly, I was “owned” by this especially aggressive individual.
Around the same time as this incident occurred, a Canadian professor of psychology whom I’d never heard of called Jordan Peterson was courting huge controversy for refusing to use gender-neutral pronouns. Certain radical sections of the social justice movement retaliated and accused Peterson of transphobia and bigotry for refusing the compelled usage of what he considers to be the linguistic constructs of a radical hard-left fringe who are especially active on university campuses. While I didn’t especially like the tone in which the professor expressed his ideas, I couldn’t help but be enamoured of his courage. I thought to myself: “I want to be more like that guy.”
I became more interested in Dr. Peterson as a person and began watching the vast number of lectures he’s uploaded to his YouTube channel which is now incredibly popular. In these lectures he discusses human psychology with a strong emphasis on religious themes and archetypes. This excited me as I have a strong interest in the philosophy of Buddhism and Daoism, as well as the more mystical strands in my native Christianity. Jordan Peterson had a way of bringing life to ancient stories and mythology that many modern people simply dismiss as superstition and frequently refers to the Jungian concept of archetypes which I found absolutely fascinating. His way of expressing ideas also reminded me that I was by conditioning and culture still a Westerner and still, in many ways I wasn’t even consciously aware of, still a Christian, albeit not a religious one. The virtue of courage in Christianity is one that I’d often neglected, preferring to cultivate love and compassion without realising the necessity of standing up for oneself by uttering the truth. The courage to tell the truth and the courage to not give in to negative emotions that weaken oneself such as self-pity, despair and anger and the courage to voluntarily face one’s suffering directly are such essential features of Christianity and, I was soon to realise, also Buddhism.
The Buddha himself is similar to Christ in his emphasis on enlightened courage. He didn’t retreat into the safe space of his father’s luxurious palace, but instead chose to voluntarily confront the deplorable poverty and starvation outside of his palace walls. Only in voluntarily facing that suffering was he able to transcend it. It was upon realising this fact that if I were to truly follow the Buddha dharma, the path I felt offered me a way to properly orient myself the world, I would have to cultivate the sort of courage evinced by Christ and Buddha by facing my enemies.
Professor Peterson often expounds the Christian concept of the Logos which can essentially be boiled down to true speech. In articulating truth as best we can as individuals, we can work out difficulties, reconcile differences and make peace without recourse to violence. Truth, he says, “snaps everything into perfect synchrony” and this telling of the truth also includes not omitting important details or avoid dealing with inconvenient facts that may contradict one’s worldview. It’s not an easy or comfortable habit initially, but once you practice it, it becomes second nature and you feel much stronger as a person. In fact, you may even feel physiological changes in your body as you do so. In my case, I am still practicing this habit of telling the truth and not capitulating to people’s attempts to browbeat or bully me, which unfortunately happens quite regularly as many still see me as a bit of a pushover. However, I’ve noticed that confronting those that are fanatical in their beliefs and who engage in ad hominem attacks with cold, truthful logic and facts and then standing firm invariably works. The sword of truth is penetrating and it is my greatest weapon against those who, like the person I mentioned earlier, are so deeply convinced of their own moral rectitude. As a result of Peterson’s emphasis on courage and truthfulness as core Western Judeo-Christian virtues that must become a part of someone if they to stand up to pernicious ideologies in the world, I feel calmer, more at peace, stronger and even able to sleep better. I don’t ruminate on the negative and am able to put all the bad things at bay knowing that the truth nested in the abounding love that Christ and Buddha spoke of is something I can rely on without fear.
This isn’t a subject I particularly wanted to talk about. I never spoke about sex at home and generally shy away from the very mention of it. It’s quite strange therefore that sex and reproduction are also fundamental aspects of human identity, belonging and biology. The vast majority of us are sexual creatures with often strong and intense desires to seek out a partner for physical affection and intimacy. Autistic people are no different in this regard. Most of us in some point in our lives will have a yearning to satiate our natural biological urges and to keep on doing so over extended periods of time with a stable romantic partner. Unfortunately, many autistic men like me languish in the dark, twisted world of involuntary celibacy where opportunities for having sex with someone are slim and the chances of being able to find a long-term sexual partner are even slimmer.
In my case, I’m 28 years old and, to put it bluntly, I’m sexually frustrated. Not being one to make small-talk or to engage in flirtation, my opportunities for sex thus far have been limited to say the least. Flirting is something I still cannot grasp intuitively or intellectually as a concept due to a failure on my part to be able to read body language and to recognise more subtle non-verbal cues. If a woman were flirting with me, I probably would not be aware of it. In fact, people I’ve been with have berated me in the past for missing chances to flirt with members of the opposite sex who have apparently given indications of romantic interest. I drifted through my teens, my college years and my early twenties having had zero contact with the opposite sex. And I mean none. Not even so much as a handshake. At university, I even gained the nickname “The Monk” for my celibate lifestyle. On my part, this was certainly not driven by some puritanical religious conviction and the stigmatising label only increased my feelings of inadequacy and despair.
In 2013, I decided I needed a fresh start in life and moved to China where I taught English. Being a white European in China made me quite desirable in the eyes of many women (light skin is seen as an feature attractive across Asia) and many vied for my attention, openly asking me if I would be their boyfriend. For me, a sexually naïve young man, it was a huge confidence boost and a very erotic and exciting experience. Eventually, I went out with a colleague called Wendy and it was then that things kind of went pear-shaped. On the one hand, I had the attention of a beautiful Chinese girl and a huge boost in my overall confidence. On the other, I was abysmal at showing affection towards her in the typical way romantic partners do and had immense difficulty navigating the complex world of romance. I was a neglectful boyfriend to say the least and one who dodged phone calls, never thought to buy gifts or to engage in playful behaviour. Worst of all, while I had summoned the courage to hug her, I did so begrudgingly due to my dislike for physical contact, we never had sex. It was for that reason that we agreed mutually to terminate our very brief romance. She had apparently been hinting to go to the bedroom for a while but I’d been quite oblivious to it, and when it came to it, I couldn’t face the physical intimacy of being up close to somebody, what with my sensory sensitivities and all. I cannot tell you the frustration of simultaneously craving sexual intimacy and at the same time not being able to engage in it due to an instinctive aversion to touch.
Like many autistic men, I face the rather grim reality of remaining involuntarily celibate for life. It’s not a nice truth to have to acknowledge and it’s a subject many are squeamish about even broaching so I felt the need to do so. I’m not proffering an answer because there simply are no trite solutions to this vexed and rather unpleasant conundrum. I’m simply telling things as they are for many us, including many autistic men I’ve spoken to privately.