There’s a lot that I don’t know and some that I can’t work out no matter how much I try. That’s the case for everyone I’m sure. But some of this is assumed to be stuff that I should know or be able to figure out given that I’m an adult and a ‘professional’. This can sometimes make my life and work pretty stressful and leave me feeling like a fraud.
It’s often said that autistic people have some areas that they excel in and are ahead of their peers in and other areas that they are ‘behind’ in. This experience was true of me as a child and has remained true for me as an adult. As a child, I was considered by most of my teachers to be clever, except in maths where I was accused of not trying and shamed for struggling. As an adult, I have learnt that like some other autistic people, I have dyscalculia, meaning that my brain cannot make any sense out of numbers and maths concepts and trying to feels physically uncomfortable – even painful. I must have found a way to communicate this to my teachers because I was eventually ‘excused’ from maths class at 14 years old. I have a vague memory of tears and fleeing the classroom – which I now understand as a very public meltdown.
In adulthood, it’s considered more common to hold specialised knowledge in some areas and not in others. This is a function of our jobs and a result of our life experience. For example, I don’t know how to operate a bulldozer but I do know how to conduct research. I think for this reason, we sometimes don’t understand how these differences in autistic neurology show up in adulthood.
For me, it’s like this – within my job I have some things that I don’t understand and have trouble making sense of that others expect that I can understand and make sense of. I’ll call this ‘assumed knowledge’. We may be fire fighters or garment workers or babysitters or stay at home parents or doctors and each comes with some specialised knowledge areas. All share assumed knowledge though and lacking in this will make the job sometimes impossible. For example, a fire fighter needs to understand how to operate their equipment and it will be assumed they can also follow a set of safety instructions as well. A stay at home parent can prepare food for their young children and it will be assumed that they are able to arrange a doctor appointment for their child if required. An academic (like me) will have skills in conducting research projects and teaching students and it will be assumed they are able to make sense of emails and fill in the many forms that come with the job.
Just like in math class all those years ago, not being able to demonstrate assumed knowledge feels embarrassing. Asking for help to do something that others imagine you can do – believe that you should be able to do given the skills and knowledge you demonstrate in other areas of your life – is risky. Memories of being shamed in childhood are not easily erased and it remains a fact that autistic adults experience higher rates of unemployment and are not promoted on par with non-autistics.
Like many of the things that I used to think were my own failings, I’m beginning to reassess this situation in light of what I now know about my autistic neurology. This process has me questioning the whole idea that autistics are ‘behind’ in some areas and ‘ahead’ in others. It implies we may have the ability to ‘catch up’ in those areas we find challenging and I’m just not sure this is always the case and nor should it be.
For example, no matter how hard I try to understand math, I can’t. No matter how many times I re-read a particular email from a colleague, I may never be able to make sense of it. No matter how many times I follow instructions on how to complete a particular form at work, it may remain un-doable for me. I put much more effort in trying to do the work of making sense of the stuff that doesn’t make sense to me than I do in going about the rest of my job. And yet, these things never get clearer or easier for me like many of the other tasks on the job do as you get more experience with them.
Rather than comparing our abilities to our peers and coming up ahead or behind, either in the schoolyard or the workplace, I think we should instead frame this as our unique autistic neurological signatures. For too long these comparisons with our peers have hurt autistic people. They’ve seen us ending up in special ed or enrolled in therapies as small children and held us back in the workplace as adults.
Instead, I want us to be accepted and celebrated for our beautiful autistic neurologies. Neurologies that see us travelling down a different path in a completely different way towards an entirely different place. We don’t learn in a linear, stackable, predictable pattern arriving at some destination called ‘functioning adult’. We may not share your ‘assumed knowledge’ or demonstrate your ‘adult skills’. We are disabled by trying to make ourselves function in ways that we are not best able to function in and need schools and families and workplaces to stop being so rigid and bend a little to make room for us.
We are not behind or ahead. We are autistic.