Monday 26 March 2018

Autistic Autistic Dad

Soon after my children had both passed the age of 10 and their mother's absence was a settled fact, the moment came when I had to tell them about their autism. Together with the person who had mentored them for the two years since Magteld died, I sat down and explained, gently, that there were some things they were good at and other things they found difficult, and that the common root of all these elements was autism. A few days later one of them recapped the conversation, telling me that both he and his brother had autism, before pausing and saying: “And what do you have, Dad?”

Their mentor and I both laughed, but it revived a question in me that I had been asking for the best part of a decade, since my older son had been diagnosed. Though lots of things have been put forward as the cause of autism, from vaccines to refrigerator mothers, everybody agrees that it doesn't strike at random. So where did my children's autism come from?

A boy runs across a lawn in a sprawling herd of boys drifting towards a school playing field. He holds his arms stiffly by his sides and traverses the grass in pursuit of one of the teachers. If you look closely you can see he is holding his shorts by his thumbs, and then you realise that he isn't wearing the shorts at all, but holding them stretched across his waist. This accounts for the sight of his butt-cheeks flickering in the sunlight as he scuttles by on his spindly legs. He reaches the teacher, stops and asks, panting: 'Sir, I couldn't find my gym shorts; am I allowed to wear these?' The teacher looks startled, gulps, then regains his composure and scowls at the boy. 'For God's sake, yes. Put them on.' The boy climbs into his shorts and runs on, alone, still confused – he is perpetually confused – but glad to have solved another of life's puzzles. So many rules, so many ways to break them: how old will he have to be before he knows them all?

It's strange to be diagnosed with autism at the age of 43. It is at once a confirmation of something you long suspected and a revelation. It changes nothing at all, apart from the entire course of your life history. It forces you to look at yourself in a different light even though you're still fundamentally the same person.

An example: a common characteristic of autistic people is what's known as stimming: the rocking movements and nervous tics and little grunts that are often deployed to quell the constant sense of discomfort. I'd never considered myself to be a stimmer, but shortly after my diagnosis I saw someone on Twitter describe how he would screw up his eyes and wince in something approximating pain after socialising, usually in a private moment such as driving home. And then I remembered the yelps that escaped from my mouth, to my wife's alarm and distress, as an awkward social encounter replayed itself in my mind with jarring intensity. The incessant drumming with my fingers; how I could spend an hour by myself in a room, throwing and catching a ball off a wall. The way I used to walk along streets fixed on my feet and the task of distributing the steps equitably: first left-right, then right-left; then right-left-left-right; right-left-left-right-left-right-right-left; right-left-left-right-left-right-right-left-left-right-right-left-right-left-left-right; and so on until either my memory hit its limit or I tripped over my own feet.

The boy holding his shorts in the anecdote is, as you've probably guessed, my eight-year-old self. As a child I was constantly told I lacked common sense. When I started at boarding school I was assigned a guide, and at break times faithfully trudged a few paces behind him wherever he went, until he stopped, turned round and asked why I was following him like a goat. 'You're my guide,' I replied with a straight face. Once I wet myself in class because there was a queue at the teacher's desk, but you weren't allowed to leave the room without asking permission, and while I stood waiting my turn my bladder gave way. Teachers berated my laziness – if I could manage Latin composition but let the contents of my pencil case go astray, it could only be because I was indolent. As a result I was consistently marked down for effort, which only deepened my confusion: if I was getting the answers right, what was the point of trying harder?

Games afternoons were mostly spent shivering on the edge of a football field, hoping nobody would be cruel enough to pass or kick the ball in my direction. My co-ordination was atrocious; I could barely throw a ball, still less catch one, and the intervention of a stick or racket just magnified the problem in the same way that children who struggled with arithmetic were destined to be bamboozled by algebra. On cross-country runs I would jog along at the back of the field with the fattest boy in the class until the other children were out of sight, at which point we would slow to a walk. Actually I didn't so much walk as shuffle, like an injured duck, my feet splayed, and stared down at my shoes as the laces unravelled (that particular problem was solved when an alert maths teacher realised I was inserting an extra twist before tying the bow).

“I put my difficulties engaging with people down to laziness and thought I just needed to try harder”

I called this blog Autistic Dad, and not by accident. When my children were diagnosed I saw plenty of familiar traits in their behavioural idiosyncrasies. At first I saw it as a way to connect with their autism, but the more I observed, the louder the echoes became. If I play a board game with one of my sons his teddies must join in to make up the numbers, just as mine did 30 years earlier. He sets out games systematically, taking turns with his teddy bears in strict rotation, using a sheet of paper to keep score; well into my teens, I played out a snooker tournament on my parents' billiard table by myself, with 24 imaginary players in three divisions, writing down the scores and keeping a league table updated. When I finally took an interest in sport it was athletics, a sport that runs on statistics. I learned world records, European records and British records by heart. No effort was required: they simply transferred from the television screen to my head as if by osmosis. I pored over record books until I could recite not just the record and the name of the holder but the date and location of the historic event (this included the women's 200 metres, at that time held jointly by two East Germans, Marita Koch and Heike Drechsler, who had each run the record time of 21.71 seconds twice). The first time I got seriously drunk my housemates marvelled at the fact that even with my pubescent brain mired in a swamp of gin and coke, I could reel off these facts without hesitation.

Interest in sport did at least motivate me to improve my co-ordination and take up distance running as a hobby that I still pursue today. It was a slow process, and I was never going to break the concentration of a Premier League football scout, but the outright clumsiness that plagued me in childhood is largely gone. So, too, are many of the other outward signs of what I now recognise as autism. I devised all kinds of camouflaging techniques to get by. As a student I was the fastest drinker in the pub, because putting the glass to my mouth exempted me from talking to people. At work I thrived in roles where I could operate autonomously, with the minimum of interaction with other people. While most colleagues loathed the prospect of a day's court reporting, I found it blissful to spend three uninterrupted hours in a room where phones had to be switched off and all I had to do was sit taking shorthand notes, to be condensed into a report during the one-hour lunch break. The only downside was that nerve-wracking moment at the end of the session when I would have to approach the advocates for both parties, look them in the eye and ask them to spell out their names for my notebook.

You might be wondering why on earth an autistic person would try to make a living in journalism. Newsrooms have a reputation as noisy, stress-soaked places where extroverts prevail, not to mention gossips, manipulators, sociopaths and office tyrants – all things that don't generally combine well with autism. A lot of people who, like me, are propelled into journalism by literary ambitions drop out because producing good hack writing under pressure is a very different discipline, just as baking cakes for a patisserie is nothing like cooking three-course meals in a restaurant kitchen. But there are plenty of niches for quiet, industrious types with a love of structure and attention to detail. These days, as journalism has become an increasingly office-bound job, the clattering phones have been mostly silenced by email and stories are as likely to emerge from a pile of data as an off-the-record briefing, it's arguably never had more opportunities for autistic people. But for me, setting out as a cub reporter, it was a tough baptism. Telephone interviews were especially strenuous and frequently reduced me to a stuttering, shrivelling wreck. Somehow I prevailed and got a lucky break inside a year when a job came up as a district reporter with the Press Association. I worked mainly alone, from home, spent as much time as I could scribbling away in courtrooms, and no longer had the stress of colleagues overhearing my phone calls. The great thing about agency reporting was that you were valued more for your dexterity with the facts than your ability to generate stories by cultivating contacts, which was the inverse of regular reporting.

And so, after a fashion, I prevailed. But it was tough and often draining work. I was driven by a need to prove myself, to show I could fit in and deal with a regular job. I put my difficulties engaging with other people down to laziness (because doesn't everybody have to deal with unpleasant people sometimes?) and that I just needed to try harder, as they kept telling me at school. I was missing something other people had, some magic key that got them access to parties and nights out in the pub. This urge to graft the skills that others flaunted effortlessly, like clicking their fingers (something else I've never been able to do) even drove me into a brief, abortive career in stand-up comedy. If I could stand on a stage and address a roomful of people without blinking or hesitating – perhaps then, Geppetto, I would be a real boy at last! On my fifth attempt the compere tactfully informed me there was some good work to be had writing jokes for radio shows. I took the friendly hint about being a better writer than performer and retired from the stage.

One of the first benefits of a diagnosis in my forties is that I feel liberated from this manic compulsion for self-flagellation. I haven't suddenly become autistic: I was always autistic, and the diagnosis is a prism that lets me view my life differently. I don't feel ashamed of my social awkwardness, or persist in the belief that it's a deficiency that I need to fix. Instead I can look back and see that I've developed a system of quite sophisticated coping mechanisms. I can reconcile myself to the fact that some forms of interaction, like job interviews or networking events, will always be difficult and forgive myself if I don't always succeed. Instead of constantly trying to suppress or overcome my autistic traits, I can concentrate on looking for ways to accommodate them. In that sense I'm still learning. Most importantly, I finally feel I can be a good role model for my children, because experience has shown me that autism doesn't condemn you to a life spent feeling isolated, unloved and miserable. There are some things you're good at and others you find difficult; the trick is to learn to live with them.