Today I disclosed the fact that I have Asperger’s to my colleagues. Here is a slightly edited version of the email I sent them. The only reason for the editing is to protect the identities of my colleagues and just to make sure I don’t get in trouble for sharing anything related to my job.
I am autistic
Some of you already know, and for some of you this is new, but I am autistic. More specifically, I was diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome a couple of years ago.
What, like Rain Main?
No, not like Rain Main. In general, that film is considered by autistic people to be almost entirely misleading. (The Keifer Sutherland TV show where the autistic kid can see in to the future isn’t very realistic either.) We are all different. Autism is a spectrum condition. Sheldon Cooper (Big Bang Theory) is probably the best example of an autistic person with an Aspergers diagnosis on TV; use him as your reference point for me.
But you seem normal. Are you sure you’re autistic?
Erm… thanks? I am definitely autistic though. The diagnostic process is lengthy and involves an entire panel of psychiatrists. No offence, but I really wouldn’t want to be neurotypical.
My sister’s friend’s nephew’s cat is autistic, but you’re not like him?
If you have met one person with autism then you have met one person with autism. We are all different. It is a spectrum.
Aren’t we all a bit autistic?
No. There is a massive difference between being shy, anxious, generally socially awkward and being autistic.
So what is it?
Autism is a neurological developmental difference. Simply put, my brain is different to your brain. If we were given the same task to complete and were subject to brain scans throughout, you would see that we were using totally different parts of our brains and were tackling the task in entirely different ways. As a result I am better tuned to some tasks than you are and vice versa. I test off the scale for some things and way below average for others.
What does this mean?
I can solve a Rubik’s cube with ease, but I cannot carry a tray of drinks**.
No seriously, what does it mean?
In a working sense, it significantly impacts me in two ways. Firstly, I have trouble communicating. Conversing requires conscious effort on my part; I think in pictures, and then have to translate them in to words. I interpret words literally. Extended periods of communication/interaction makes me tired. As you know, the majority of communication is not directly in the words exchanged, but in tone, body language, facial expression, etc.: I only get the words, and the rest of it misses me almost completely. Consequently, I ask lots of questions and attempt to get concrete, black and white answers in an attempt to fill in the blanks. I am aware that sometimes this could feel like an interrogation, but I do my best not to have this happen. Please be patient with me if I am asking lots of questions, it is likely only because the information you are giving me does not balance in my head. Conversely, I am normally just giving you words and not broadcasting any of the other stuff. I am almost incapable of anticipating your response, sugar coating information, or lying. If you ask me for my opinion, you are going to get my 100% honest and unreserved opinion and moreover I am going to be surprised when you don’t like it.
Secondly, I have what I can only describe as super senses. All of my senses are turned way up to 11. My brain does not focus on an individual stimulus, but instead attempts to process all inputs simultaneously, in real time. In an environment like an office this can be exhausting. Heads up: I can only assume that strip lights were designed by Satan himself. The combination of buzzing and flickering is torturous for me and this is why there is a sign on the light switch at the front of the building and why I get cross if people don’t follow the instructions on it. My dark corner and my headphones are not just whims – they enable me to do my job.
Is there an upside?
Yes there is. I think in pictures and this means I can organise and process huge amounts of information in my head extremely rapidly. My eye for detail is well honed. I can hyper focus on a task for extended periods of time. Perseverance is a common trait right across the autism spectrum. My brain catalogues *everything*. I can replay conversations in my head like videos. Heads up: this means that if you promise me something or agree to something, I am not going to forget and I am going to hold you to it without exception. Likewise, I know exactly what I have promised or agreed to. No amount of spin will save you. My default response in these situations is to request “Permission to treat as a hostile witness?” from <person>.
Aspergers wasn’t a thing when I was a kid.
And at one point people thought mercury was a cure for pretty much everything, Heroin was a reasonable cough medicine, lobotomy was a reasonable solution to depression and that trepanation was a sensible cure for migraines. Things move on.
I’m talking to you, why aren’t you concentrating on me?
I am concentrating on you. If I am looking around the room, playing with something in my hands, or shifting around then I am concentrating on you. If you force me to sit in silence, hands empty and then stare at me, I will drop my shutters. “Normal” eye contact requires a level of trust only those closest to me can achieve. If I shift my gaze from you when talking, I am not lying to you – I’m just trying to prevent you from locking on to me with your optical probes and scanning the depths of my soul – yes, this is really how it feels for me.
Is this why your desk is so tidy?
Yes. My desk is intentionally spartan and I need it this way to in order to work efficiently. I prefer to do things at my desk rather than yours because I realise you are unlikely to want me to tidy your desk before answering your question or helping you. Most people are okay with this and <person> has even learned to use the guest coaster (no really, there is a guest coaster) without needing to be reminded.
Is this why you leave the same time every day?
Yes. My routine is extremely important to me. I realise that you can’t fully understand why, but if you mess with my routine then my world begins to crumble around me.
Why are you telling us now?
Probably not for the reason you think. My reason for not telling you up until this point is that it isn’t really anyone’s business and I felt I was doing an okay job of masking it. I have had almost 30 years of practise at pretending to be like you. I can more or less keep the illusion going during the working day, but this takes a massive amount of effort on my part and leaves me exhausted. Currently, I am running a spoon* deficit and I am simply unable to maintain the facade. Since the reason for the deficit isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, I am unlikely to be able to rectify the situation and rather than be judged unfairly for my behaviour, I thought it was better to explain.
Have I told you everything?
No. I have intentionally only told you as much as I think you need to know.
Do I want to talk about it?
Not really. Unless you are one of the people who already knew because I told you, I am really not comfortable discussing this verbally. I am sure some of you have questions: Google is not your friend! There is a huge amount of misinformation available on autism on the internet. If you have a question, email it to me and I will try my best to answer it. If you would feel more comfortable raising your question to <person> then this is also an option.
Do you “Light it up blue!”?
Ugh! You have found the Autism Speaks website. Please do not talk to me about cures or eugenics, I will become extremely annoyed, [metaphorically] turn green and Hulk smash my way out of the conversation.
* Spoon Theory
** This is actually true.