In a break from my usual schedule (and breaking my usual schedule hurts!), there’s something else I want to talk about this week. I’ve been working on this post for a while; it hasn’t been particularly easy to write. It is rather personal – so if you’re here entirely for the Classics, I apologise. Normal service will be resumed next week, I promise!
I’ve wondered for a couple of weeks whether I should write this at all. I don’t need to; I don’t feel any particular compulsion to share every detail of my life online, and it seems self-indulgent to talk about myself. And yet… this website represents me to my students, and to other people in Classics who’ve stumbled across it over the years. I want it to represent me properly. And maybe sharing my own experience will help somebody else out there.
So here goes…
I was recently diagnosed with autism.
This is a big deal for me, but it isn’t an entirely new realisation (and possibly won’t come as a surprise to other people who know me, either). I’ve suspected it for a long time. My son was diagnosed with autism four years ago, and to be honest his behaviour never seemed all that odd to me. I soon realised that I shared a lot of his traits – physical and social awkwardness, unusual obsessions, difficulty connecting with people, sensitivity to food, temperature, smells, textures – only worse, and after a while I began to feel a bit hypocritical about accepting his diagnosis without acknowledging my own similarities.
I started to look into the adult diagnostic process several years ago, and was startled by what a lottery it is. Different local authorities in the UK have very different procedures, and completely different levels of provision for diagnosis. Furthermore, there’s a well-recognised problem with the diagnosis of women. Autism in men and boys is readily identified, but women tend to be much better at masking the traits, and so are often dismissed by GPs as having depression or other conditions instead.
I didn’t feel particularly encouraged by what I found out. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that my own local authority has a dedicated Adult Autism Diagnostic Service – and that it accepts self-referrals. If I’d had to get a referral from my GP, I’m afraid I would never have gone any further with the process. It’s possible that I might be persuaded to see a doctor if one of my limbs actually fell off – but even then, the likelihood is that I’d stick it back on with sellotape and hope for the best.
Self-referral – and via the internet, too! – seemed much more accessible… which I suppose is the whole point. So I filled in the form and sent it off, almost two years ago. I received an email asking whether I was suicidal and in need of immediate help. I said no (unless stress-eating of biscuits counts as being a danger to oneself) – then heard nothing for over a year, during which time I forgot all about it.
Then during lockdown I was sent an appointment. Under normal circumstances I’d be required to go to the centre for an interview, but in-person interviews were being replaced during the pandemic by online interviews. That suited me very well. One of my quirks is a complete inability to locate unfamiliar places without becoming appallingly lost (so if you ever invite me to go anywhere exciting, please meet me at the station!).
There were two interviews, on two different days and with three different people. The first was very formulaic; the interviewer simply read through a set of multiple-choice questions. (Apparently she didn’t have to go through all of the questions, because my initial form-filling had been ‘very comprehensive’. I like forms – another quirk!)
The second interview was very long and very detailed. I’d thought that I probably wouldn’t have much to say: yes, I have certain peculiarities, but not really a lot of them, surely. And yet… here’s a sample.
INTERVIEWER: Do you have strong feelings about lighting?
ME: Lighting? No.
Well… I suppose I do have the curtains closed right now, but that’s just because it’s just so sunny and I hate it when the light shines in my eyes; but I can still see the stained glass window, because I like the light through stained glass; and I’ve got some of the lamps on… not all of them, obviously…
Actually I have ten lamps in this room… is that weird? It might be a bit weird I suppose…
Yes, I think maybe I do have strong feelings about lighting.
And so on, for about two hours… Let’s just say that I learned a lot about myself during that interview!
After that I was contacted, a few days later, with feedback. I braced myself – I wasn’t quite sure what for. I think I was worried that I might be told that I didn’t fit into the ‘autistic’ category. Not fitting in is something I should be accustomed to by now, after a lifetime of square-peg-round-hole syndrome – but it still stings sometimes.
The person on the phone – the second interviewer – said she’d called to tell me that I had in fact been formally diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
I asked whether it was a difficult decision to come to.
She paused. It was a Diplomatic Pause; the sort of pause I use when I’m trying to find a way to say something critical about someone’s work in the nicest possible way.
‘No’, she said after a moment. ‘It wasn’t difficult. We were all in agreement.’
Then she went on…
‘There’s a scale we use to assess the initial interview. A score of under 65 means that it’s very unlikely that you will be diagnosed with autism. Around 65, we need to investigate further.’
I had to ask.
‘So what was my score?’
I think she was trying not to laugh.
That seemed pretty conclusive.
Over the last couple of weeks my diagnosis has brought with it a sense of considerable and growing relief, and a slow acceptance of traits I’ve always blamed myself for. I’m starting to realise that maybe the problem I have with public speaking isn’t something I need to fight against; instead I could just accept it and stop feeling ashamed of being an academic who can’t ‘do’ conferences and big lectures. When people comment on my weird accent (which they’ve been doing all my life), I can simply shrug and say that it’s part of being autistic – rather than trying unsuccessfully to explain why a lifelong resident of the North East of England sounds like someone who’s spent years in America, Australia, Ireland or South Africa (depending on what mood I’m in). And next time I meet somebody in the post-pandemic world, maybe I won’t even try to shake their hand or look them in the eye. I’ll just stand back and nod politely. My diagnosis has given me the permission that I needed to stop holding myself to an impossible standard of normality, and to start imagining instead what my own standards could be.
In reaching this point, I think I’m lucky. If I hadn’t started researching autism because of my son, I don’t think I would have come to understand any of this. If I hadn’t been motivated by a desire to connect with him, I wouldn’t have pursued a diagnosis. If self-referral hadn’t been available, I wouldn’t have taken it any further. And if I’d been told that my diagnosis was borderline, I don’t think I would have felt right about claiming it.
As it is, all of these things lined up for me. For a lot of people they don’t. I imagine that there are a lot of people out there who have a suspicion that they may be autistic, but who do not have the inclination or the incentive or the means to investigate further, so they live with the uncertainty. Many other people have to self-diagnose, because a formal diagnosis has been refused them because of gender or race (yes, that’s a thing: autism is still seen by many people as a white boy’s problem).
Some people, of course, don’t need a diagnosis to help them accept their differences. I admire those people and wish I was one of them. But I’m not. I couldn’t even bring myself to talk about my diagnosis until the formal letter arrived in the post; and as it is, I’m having to fight the impulse to scan my letter and include it here as ‘proof’. So I will be framing my piece of paper and hanging it on my wall, as a much-needed reminder to myself that I don’t need to feel guilty about not being ‘normal’.
To bring this back – finally! – to Classics … I don’t have any doubt that I was drawn to Classics in the first place because I was autistic, and I suspect I’m not alone in that. It always felt like a space in which I could be left alone to do my thing – whatever that thing might happen to be. I’ve spent two decades skulking quite happily around the edges of the discipline, being socially awkward and incurably weird, surrounded by books and random bits of research, collecting one degree after another in various subjects – and in all that time I’ve never felt judged, dismissed or mocked. Classics as a discipline still has space for the eccentrics, and I for one am grateful for it. Oh, I know that Classics is very far from perfect, and it certainly isn’t as inclusive as it needs to become in order to thrive. But the fact that I feel safe enough to write this post says a lot about my experience of the discipline and the people in it.
So after much thought, I’ve decided that I’m very happy for people to know me as an autistic classicist. I hope that being open about it will encourage students to talk to me about their requirements, regardless of whether or not they have a formal diagnosis. I hope that people will ask me questions if they want to hear an autistic perspective (although I would never claim to represent a group of people that I’ve only just joined!). I hope that, when I meet people in real life, they’ll understand that I do love to talk to people – but sometimes I’m just not very good at it! I hope that, just by being an autistic woman in Classics, I can help a little bit to open up the discipline to different kinds of voices.
Most of all, though, I want to be open about it for my son. I explained my diagnosis to him when I received it, and he didn’t say much. But the other day, when I was getting over-enthusiastic about something weird, he looked at me with amused tolerance and announced,
‘That’s because you’re autistic. Like me. It’s fun, isn’t it?’
Who am I to argue? I have a lot to learn about being happily autistic – but today I’m making a start!
Thank you for reading – if you’ve made it this far! And in case you’re wondering, I’ll gladly take ‘Congratulations!’ as an appropriate response!