Robert Watkins past experiences have more clarity after getting his adult autism diagnosis.
Becoming aware that you’re autistic at the age of 56 is quite something. While some who get a late diagnosis feel differently, I was delighted; it was an instantaneous revelation. It’s been a few years since then, and, as I’m sure you can imagine, I’ve given it a lot of thought.
It changes everything and it changes nothing. I am still the person I’ve always been — autism is with you your whole life — but knowing that you’re on the spectrum allows you to see your life through a different lens, a lens that makes everything so much clearer.
For example: it has always been known that I had a bad temper as a child. Sliding the lens of awareness into place reveals that my “temper tantrums” were, more than likely, meltdowns. Unlike many of my fellow autistics, I don’t have a prodigious memory of my past, so I can’t remember specific incidents, but rethinking my past makes things just “fit”.
My mother has been very helpful with this exploration, and we’ve spoken a fair bit recently. Over the years we’ve had some difficulty getting on, a fact I attribute (now) to my rigid thinking. Since my diagnosis, however, we’ve become so much closer, which is wonderful. In fact, as we discuss my past we’ve begun to wonder if she too is a spectrumite, as she has said, “Me too!” to many of the ways autism has manifested itself in me. At 80, she’s not the least bit bothered with getting a diagnosis, but she is also pondering her past.
They Called Me Mr. Hat
Wearing the same clothes every day is a classic expression of autism. When I was small, probably about four years old, I had a black Bolero hat rimmed with pom-poms. I wore it constantly. So much so that Mr. Bartlett, the green grocer at the end of my Gran’s road, used to call me “Mr. Hat”.
Although we can’t find it, I remember a picture of me taking a bath … with my hat square on my head. As Mum recounts it: “I remember very well trying to dress and undress you with that hat. To get you into your pajamas, I had to take your hat off and, whoosh, off came your shirt then … the hat went back on your head. Off with the hat and whoosh, on with your pajama top and back went the hat. It was quite a chore.”
When Perfectionism is Far from Perfect
Oh, my poor mother. Of course, at the time I was born, autism was diagnosed much less frequently, and with no language delay, it would never even have been considered. But I’ve put her through a lot. For example, Mum has never been great at spelling, as she herself will readily admit. Nonetheless, she loves to write long letters (yes, on paper, believe it or not).
Once, when I was in my twenties and living in France, Mum wrote me one of her lovely letters. She writes as she speaks, so reading her letters is like speaking with her. Even though her letters are a delight and a comfort to read, this time I inadvertently hurt her feelings. I took the letter she wrote to me and sent it back, complete with spelling and grammar corrections.
What we didn’t know at the time is that the perfectionism that had always run deep in me was yet another manifestation of my autism. I actually thought I was helping my mother by pointing out her errors! Oh, hindsight. Luckily, we can laugh about it now.
So yeah, perfectionism. Or, perhaps more accurately, dysfunctional perfectionism. My mum reminded me that I had to get my homework done each night before bed. And it had to be right. There was no room for getting to bed on time and finishing in the morning. What if I didn’t have time in the morning? No, it had to be done before bed, no exceptions. I also got very upset if I didn’t get excellent marks (fortunately I did well in school, academically).
When the school year started, I would rush to get a desk in the front row, center if possible. In part I still think it was what I’ve always thought, wanting to have direct access to the teacher, the source of knowledge. For I learned very early that the one thing I could rely on was my intellect. I never played sports, never joined clubs — never anything social.
School for me was all about academics, nothing else. I realize now that choosing to sit front and center was also a way to avoid sensory distractions in an environment where I wanted to have as much focus as possible.
To this day I prefer to work in absolute silence, whatever the work may be.
A close kin to my need for perfectionism is rigid, black and white thinking, taking things literally. The most dramatic example from childhood has to do with the opening credits for a television show from the sixties, when westerns were all the rage: Bonanza.
We moved from England to Canada in 1966, when I was seven, so it must have been around that time that I first saw the show. The opening sequence displays a map of the ranch, The Ponderosa. After the show’s title is presented, the map catches fire and, burnt away, reveals the Cartwright family riding their horses. The first time I saw this I screamed with fear because I thought the television had caught fire!
The following is a clip of the opening sequence (for those of you young’uns who’ve never seen it). While preparing to write this article I showed the clip to a friend because I still wasn’t sure, five decades later, if my reaction was unusual. The look of astonishment she gave me let me know very clearly that thinking the television had caught fire was … a bit odd. Be careful watching it: your monitor will catch fire at about eight seconds in:
Social Anxiety, Awkwardness and Dependence
Social dynamics is another area that has me revisiting my past and revising my understanding of it. When I started high school, I was not quite thirteen and not quite five feet tall. I hung out with the chess club, although I never joined. Looking back, I’ll bet more than one of them was also on the spectrum. I consciously chose friends who were my intellectual equal or better. Everything had to do with learning.
I did try to fit in, somewhat. High school dances scared the heck out of me, but I still went to some. Most of the time, however, I would stand against a wall, stock straight and petrified. The noise and the chaos didn’t help any, although I had no idea back then. I was just a ball of anxiety without knowing why.
Eventually, at sixteen, I did get a girlfriend: Barb Harding. We were classic high school sweethearts, and she was absolutely wonderful. At eighteen, however, once high school was done, I ended the relationship, somewhat abruptly. It’s not that we weren’t getting along or anything, I just decided (again, allowing my brain to dictate everything) that I was too young to have that long-term a relationship.
Now, many years later, my marriage is in tatters, I have learned something rather profound about me and relationships. My partners have always become my best friend, which can be good and is very comforting. But too much so; sometimes they become my only friend.
I’ve only recently realized that I become completely dependent on the women in my life.
They become a safe haven in a neurotypical world that often confuses me and makes me anxious. As a result, I put far too much trust in them. Of my girlfriends and wives, my mum says that “they could do no wrong.” Now, as I am about to start over — again — that awareness is daunting.
I don’t have any experience doing things differently. But I know I can’t repeat the same pattern. Not only is it not good for me, it’s rather unfair to her.
A couple of years ago I was on panel talking about autism and relationships (oh, the irony!). There was a couple on the panel, who have since become friends, and the woman said that the ideal partner for an autistic is a super-nurturer. At the time I scoffed at the idea. Look at me, I thought, my marriage is fantastic and my wife is far from a super-nurturer. Now I think she is probably right.
*On Autistic.ly, Robert is reinventing the workplace with and for autistic people.
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