There are many things that I enjoy doing. I am good at some of them and less good at others. There are two things in my life though that I have never learned how to do but which come as easily and swimming does to a large goldfish. These things are writing and public speaking. Obviously as an author and autism advocate they are quite useful skills to excel at.
As a child I struggled to know anything about the people around me, especially children of my own age. Adults were safer. I could understand adults because they gave dear instructions: ‘Jeanette, don’t do that to your brother!’; ‘Jeanette, clean your teeth!’. No subtleties or nuances there. Nobody was trying to confuse me or manipulate or tease me using such horrible things as sarcasm. Children were horrible as far as I was concerned. You never knew if they liked you. Even if they said they liked me one day they were just as likely to hate me the next. As a teenager it was even worse. I was this open, honest Aspie girl in a world or bitchy, fickle teenagers. At least if the boys bullied you they’d be upfront about it – pull Jeanette’s hair, chase Jeanette with a spider, call Jeanette names. There was a strange logic to it in which I had a clear – if not very edifying – role. The girls however, were a totally different story. I still don’t know how teenage (non-Autistic) girls operate and feel anxious in their company.
So what did little honest, open Jeanette do to feel she belonged? I read. And read. And read. Books were my friends. The characters within them my peer group. The characters in books made sense. The author was usually kind enough to explain their motivations and some kind authors even explained what was going on with such strange and alien things as facial expressions and eye contact. Oh how I loved those authors.
As I grew older and gained an Asperger’s diagnosis I discovered that I did not ‘get’ about 80 or 90 per cent of the message when people spoke to me. I felt cheated. Neurotypical people understood a whole load of information that I was missing. And I could’t learn how it worked, no matter how many times I watched ‘Lord of the Rings’ and focussed on the actors’ facial expressions. Somewhere along the line I wrote a book – My first serious piece of writing ever and it was accepted to be published. ‘You’re gifted’ said people. People told me how clearly I communicated through my writing. I joined the public service. ‘Your emails are fantastic Jeanette’ said a boss. ‘You communicate so clearly. I wish the other graduates were as good as you.’
Some time – and more books – later, I realised that my apparent ‘gift’ of writing was simply my way of being clear through writing so I didn’t need to talk to people face to face and know that I wasn’t communicating the way most people did. My public speaking was the same. If I were to only get 10 per cent of the meaning of conversations, I was going to make sure that everyone understood what I was saying. I have learned over the years to convey meaning through what I write and what I say without the need to eye contact, facial expressions or body language.
So no, I’m not gifted. I’m just Autistic, my childhood friends were authors and I want to communicate with you. Which I suppose is a gift of sorts.