I have an Autism Spectrum Disorder. I’m also an author. To many, these two things don’t go together. Television has told us many times over that someone with Autism is either a child rocking and humming to themselves, or the little professor type who takes things too literally and doesn’t understand abstract concepts or emotions.
I take things literally, and I often have problems recognizing emotions (particularly my own), but to me Autism and creativity have always gone together. People are scary things you see. They’re loud, and worse, they have all these rules that I’m always breaking. These rules contradict each other, so to me they’re impossible to get right, but to everyone else they make perfect sense.
Always tell the truth. Sounds like an easy thing to follow, right? Wrong, because telling the truth is a VERY bad thing. No one wants to know how big their butt really looks. When someone asks you how you are feeling, they don’t care about the truth, they want you to follow the script and say OK.
In real life keeping up with all these scripts and rules is impossible, and exhausting. But in books things are simpler. Communication is much easier to understand in the world of fiction. The ‘ums,’ and ‘ahs’ are all but gone. The non verbal communication I fail to pick up in real life is pointed out to me. In fiction a twitch at the wrong moment can mean: ‘Ye gads! This guy is hiding something. Could he be the real killer?’ In real life, if I catch the twitch among all the other things going on I think: ‘A twitch – meaning: ???’
Trouble is that in real life the world is a mess of noise, chaos, and boredom. Things don’t make sense. People don’t make sense. I’ve never stopped thinking about the teacher who said I couldn’t walk down a corridor because of a sign. The sign said: ‘No food allowed in this corridor.’ I had no food on me. I walked away with a frown on my face and several scenarios. Technically I was protein based – was I food? Did he suspect my closed bag contained secret hidden food? My latest hypothesis is that he was a power hungry guy who had turned away several rule violators before me, and didn’t want to stop at me even though I wasn’t breaking the rules. Saying that, I’m still puzzling over a decade later.
You see, in my life things have to make sense. I don’t like random. I need to understand, and in fiction this works. Fiction has rules. It’s structured. In fiction people do random things, but if it’s a good book, by the end you have an idea what drove the character to that action.
Autism includes, among other things, processing issues. I spend most of my time in my room. I recently moved to nights at my new job because I couldn’t stand all the constant stimulation that goes with working days. Nights work much better for me as usually my people time is limited. I spend a few minutes talking to fellow support workers, and a few hours with the person I’m supporting, depending on how late they stay up.
Some might say this lack of contact with the outside world is a disadvantage to being a writer. I disagree. One of the reasons I don’t go out much is because everything gets in. Most people filter the outside world. I can’t. And I can’t seem to forget much I’ve seen either. I remember the man years ago who yelled at his three boys outside a train station. How one child kept still as a statue, his face pale and eyes old. How another yelled back just as loud. How the third seemed to hide as best he could.
I remember the look of love on a mother’s face as she talked to her baby in her native language in the hospital waiting room. I remember the apprehension on the face of the pregnant seventeen year old when a group of elderly women started talking to her before her checkup. When they were happy for her and told her she’d do well, she almost cried with happiness. She’d been worried they would criticize her because of her age.
The less I go out, the less overwhelmed I get. The less overwhelmed I get, the more I see. I notice things that others don’t. In a special school I volunteered at, a mostly non verbal child, when startled, once said a spontaneous four word sentence. There were three other adults in the room. I was the only one that heard it.
Most of all I read. I read 62 books last year, and am aiming for at least 65 this year. And this is me out of practice. School was torture for me. So much stimulation, so much of everything. Sometimes I would get so overwhelmed that my senses would shut down. My eyes would go blind, and my ears deaf just to shut things out for a little while.
And then in secondary school I rediscovered books. I’d found them before in primary, but things were stricter then. The adults had certain ideas about what I could achieve as a ‘disabled child,’ and I was discouraged from reading anything above my perceived reading level. I read every single picture book they had, and let me tell you, those things are boring. Sometimes when feeling brave I’d sneak chapter books and hope to get them in my bag before anyone saw, but I was not by nature a brave child. Once I saw a book with such a colorful cover I couldn’t resist. It was a Roald Dahl book, one of the larger ones, and well above my reading level. It was my first chapter book, and it took my eyes a couple of seconds to get used to all the words on the page, and then I was reading. It was like stepping into a circus, all smells, colors, sounds, but exciting and not overwhelming like I was used to. By the time I got back to my classroom I’d read the first ten pages.
I still remember stepping into the classroom, engrossed, and the horrible jolt of the adult’s voices when they realized what I was reading. They sent me back to the library to give back my book. I got a picture book instead. Since then I’ve read every single Roald Dahl book, except that one. I’ve tried, but even as an adult I keep feeling like I’m going to get told off.
Secondary school had no such restrictions. We were allowed two books out a day. Every day I’d go in, read a book at lunch, get out two more for the afternoon and finish them a few hours after getting home. I’d go back in the next day, rinse and repeat. Eventually the librarian started letting me take three out. By the time I’d finished school I must have read thousands.
I penned my first story at five (ironically – before I could really read), but I think reading all those books at secondary school was when I decided to be an author. I started my first novel at thirteen. Since then my life has been words. That’s another reason why I think Autism and creativity go well together: once you find your focus you become obsessed by it. The professionals even have a word for it: ‘subject of interest.’
My subject of interest is writing. I write short, long, and everything in between. My sloooowww reaction and processing times make me a slow writer. Often I only average 500 words an hour, but when it’s something you love, you do it anyway. My current monthly record is 72 thousand words, and I’m still hoping to beat that someday.
Best of all things, Autism gives me imagination. Yup, you read that right, Autism and imagination go together. I’m guessing the thousands of books help too, but when you get down to it Autism is just a way of thinking differently. I don’t have to dig for plot ideas, I have a file of hundreds on my computer. They come to me from dreams, and random questions I ask about the world that few seem to question. ‘What would happen if…?’ ‘Would the world be better if…?’ ‘What would really mess things up…?’
Autism has its disadvantages. I hate surprises, even slight ones. I plan out my day, sometimes to the minute. I like to know what I’m going to be doing a day from now, a week, a month, a year. Yeah, sometimes I over plan. I’ve lost count of how many five year plans I made last year.
I’m in the curious state of being very able in some areas, and very disabled in others. This puts my future in a precarious situation. My years of words and people watching have taught me well. Short term and with the right conditions you’d probably just think I was shy, but every social exchange costs me. I put on a good face, and then I go home and stim, and hum and rock my way back to normal. Once when I was unemployed my job counselor insisted I go to a job fair. Turns out job fairs and Autism don’t mix. I had a meltdown of the likes I have not had since my school years. I shut down, and still don’t remember the next two days.
I have a driving license, but when I started getting so overstimulated driving that I couldn’t stop stimming behind the wheel, and couldn’t function for days after and before a driving trip, I stopped. I have a tablet I take everywhere that has gps (as I get lost even on familiar walking routes), my calender, and other coping applications. This paradox of appearing able and being disabled means I receive no help outside family for my condition. It also means my potential work environments are limited.
Where I work now is pretty much perfect for my needs, but it’s a unique job, and I know from my forward thinking mindset that one day it might change. That’s my last reason why Autism and creativity go together. There are few jobs that would suit me more, or that I love more than being a writer. I keep hoping that if I work my socks off, one day if it comes down to it I won’t have to worry about fitting into a new job, I can just wrap myself in words.
Every week in 2014 I’m putting up a new short story on my website: http://samaustinwriter.wordpress.com/ . At the end of the week it gets taken down, published, and replaced with a new one. I’m also editing a novel, writing another novel, and planning a third. I write horror, fantasy, and science fiction. There’s also a zombie novella I hope to finish edits on when I get ahead of the short stories. So have a peek at my short stories, and feel free to ask me any questions over at my website.
I was worried about writing this article, but in the end it was surprisingly cathartic. Hope you enjoyed reading it and learned something about the world of Autism.
by Sam Austin