I’ve never considered myself to be ‘normal’ or ‘just like everyone else’. When you’re a nonbinary person, and an asexual aromantic in a world of binary gender adults interested in romantic relationships and sex —you don’t fit. You often don’t quite present, sound or act like most people. But as I try to iron out creases that trip me up in my teaching career, and talk to neurodiverse friends on Twitter, I’m seeing another set of differences in how I think, feel and function that also set me apart.
I’m guessing neurotypical people rehearse conversations in their heads when they’re giving a speech, or telling someone they really care about something that really matters to them. By the time I was around fifteen, I was I rehearsed ANYTHING and EVERYTHING I may like to say to my friends before saying it aloud. I would approach social situations with prepared topics and comments drafted in my brain and would be happy when I got to say them all.
Did I monitor the interest levels of people as I plunged through my pre-rehearsed topics? Not really. Sometimes when I’d finished talking I did. Knowing how much to say about a topic and not rambling on and on when the other person isn’t as interested as me is a life skill I am probably still learning, in my thirties. I have to consciously and consistently monitor people and reflect on whether I’m maybe saying too much.
What are You on About?
As a teenager, I routinely initiated conversations with peers because it was the easiest way to communicate. Even as an adult I find other people starting the conversation challenging. With people I don’t know well, the first thing I think they’re saying usually isn’t what they mean. I’ve developed a habit of listening, ignoring my first interpretation, and waiting until a second or third interpretation forms before I respond. Usually by then I’ve correctly identified the topic and their intended meaning. If I take too long to do that, I comment on one aspect I’m sure I understand, to encourage them to say more, to give me more time to figure out what they’re talking about.
When I’m tired, I also struggle because I interpret things literally. I suspect that any other time I remember what I know about that person, or topic and do mental gymnastics to get from what they literally said to what they actually mean. That gets socially awkward because neurotypical people, especially adults in a professional context, tend to want immediate answers to their questions. But they don’t say what they literally mean, so I need processing time to do mental gymnastics before I can answer.
This can make social interactions difficult. For example, when I’m planning what I’m teaching next week I plan teacher groups on four days of writing, despite 30 minutes earlier discussing having three Writing lessons that week. Because if I am planning Writing, my brain is NOT thinking about the timetable, it is thinking about WRITING (this is the case for almost everything, almost always).
Often in meetings I’m hyper focused on one main thing, and someone asks or talks about something else. There’s a mental distance between me and them. To cross it, I have to pull back from that one thing I was thinking about. I need at least two, if not three details to figure out where on Earth my colleague is standing, let alone how to cross the mental gulf between us to talk about the same thing. And piecing together those clues takes time, so again I need more processing time in face to face, or on the phone conversations, when adults expect an immediate response. (This is why I love emails and social media, because I can take all the processing time I want before responding.)
Picture this. You’re in a meeting in which other people frequently give very few contextual clues, and elaborate on each other’s thoughts or change the topic rapidly. You don’t have enough contextual information to pull back from your hyper-focus to get what Joe is saying, and now Jane is saying something else, and then Max changes the topic again. Its like everyone else is is cycling on a level surface as a group, and you’re in the skate park stuck on jumps. You’re hitting road blocks, and doing all sorts of crazy gymnastics to move in a straight line and wondering why its so hard to keep up with the group cycling/ conversation. This is me in staff meetings.
What are Social Graces?
I’ve never been a fan of a few basic social conventions.
1. I don’t use names.
I’m a teacher. I know that people like being addressed by name. That a simple thing like that can fill people’s buckets. But in a state of nature I would never speak to anyone by name unless they had their back to me. I’m just not wired that way. I’ve had to learn to use my students and colleagues names often and it’s something I often have to do consciously and deliberately, where everyone else seems to do it naturally.
So how do I speak to people? As I sociable person who likes people, I just walk up to them and start talking about whatever I notice that relates to them/ us/ the setting at the time. I often catch people off guard, and they take a moment to process what I’m saying, and introverts struggle. But I’ve started some great conversations that way.
2. I don’t like eye contact.
This is a classic, obvious autistic trait but I was unconcious of it for quite some time. Because people look you in the eyes and insist you look back from childhood. So you make yourself do it and pretend it doesn’t bother you. Or you make eye contact so they know you’re listening but you keep finding excuses to look away. They don’t notice anything. And you don’t want to notice how uncomfortable eye contact makes you, because God knows how often how many people are trying to make eye contact with you and you’re trying to uncomfortably meet it!
3. I don’t do small talk.
When you talk to people you’re supposed to ask how they are. When they’re strangers you’re supposed to do ice breakers, or ‘polite conversation starters’ or —hell, I don’t know because I don’t do it. Why? Because I’m not interested. I’m interested in what I’m interested in, so I’m just going to launch into that with no names, greetings, preamble or niceties —no time wasting— lets get into it! (Yeah the impatience is likely ADHD which I have quite a few traits of, and not just the ones that overlap with autism.)
Again, I have had to spend lots of time learning and practicing asking how people are, or thinking of things that matter to them and asking how those things are going. I do care about the latter. If they start talking about it I will show interest in my responses. But its not natural for me to think to ask about other people. I used to just assume that if something mattered to people they wouldn’t need an invitation to talk about it and would just say it, but I’m learning there are many exceptions to that.
Time Management high school
I had no idea what the above words meant as a kid or teenager. I lived a five-minute walk from the back gate of my school. I walked to school and was often a few minutes late. Why? Because to get to class on time I had to know how long it took me to get ready for school, how long the walk was, factor in the time to get from the gate to my locker, to carry my books from my locker to my classroom. I had to juggle four things I have no inclination to deal with it, at the same time.
[And what was the point of being on time to class? Lining up outside the room? Waiting for everyone to slowly take their seats? If I came in right as the teacher was starting the roll —no time was wasted. I’ve always known I was a why person. If you asked me to do something I saw no reason for doing and gave me no reason —I wouldn’t do it. (More on this later.)]
Time Management University
At University I quickly realised I was not going to keep track of which assignments were due when, or even remember the assignments I had to do. And I’ve always found dates meaningless. There’s just days of the week, and which week it is of the school term or holidays (which works well for me as a teacher). So how did I manage time around classes, a casual job and getting all the assignments done? I learned early on that starting an assignment within a week of getting it, working on it as often as I was motivated to, then doing the next got things done on time. So my ‘time management’ is just ‘start early and hope it works’.
Navigating to New Places
I sucked at this, for over a decade after getting my licence. Navigating to an unfamiliar place meant looking it up in the Melways (a print book as this was pre sat nav and pre Google Maps), calculate travel time, factor in time to find a car park and time to walk from my car to the unfamiliar place. I got lost A LOT the year I got my licence. As an adventurous, easy-going person, I learned to embrace and enjoy it. If you drove too far out of town, the green signs would tell you where the next town/ suburb was and I trusted those signs and didn’t worry too much.
But when I had to be at that unfamiliar place at a certain time? That remained a challenge because I found it REALLY hard to factor all four of those things to get there on time for… about fifteen years. Not because I’m stupid. Not because I’m too lazy to plan. But because the night before when I set my alarm clock, or when I decide my departure time, I forget time to find a carpark, or get from my car to the unfamiliar place or that peak hour traffic is a thing (to this day that one catches me out).
This has advantages too. As a teen, my mum and brother could be arguing in the next room, and I wouldn’t really hear them because I was hyper-focused on writing or editing my latest novel. But it wasn’t the greatest for my health as a teenager. In hindsight, I didn’t dress warmly enough in winter. I’d hyper-focus on the fun stuff I was doing with friends and not notice how cold I was. That wasn’t good for my asthma or hey fever. Or I’d hyper focus on writing on school holidays, then realise it was four o’clock in the afternoon and I hadn’t eaten lunch yet. I still have to be careful when I’m working on anything important to me —at work or books at home— to keep an eye on the time, and not go too long without meal or bathroom breaks or get too hot or too cold. Its a constant thing.
What’s the Point?
As I said earlier, why be on time for class, so I can line up outside, wait for everyone else to enter and sit down slowly and get zero benefits for having got out of bed a bit earlier? If you want me to do something —tell me why. The fact you want me to do it doesn’t motivate me. The fact you were my parent or teacher and even now, the fact alone that its my boss asking doesn’t motivate me. Intrinsic motivation for me is not conforming to other people’s expectations, their wants, being obedient or doing anything purely because someone asked. I care about, I want to understand, I am motivated by WHY. Tell me how it benefits people —students, colleagues, my boss, me —anybody— or how it makes my work more productive, or easier, or safer or whatever. That’s what motivates me. I don’t know anyone else so strongly motivated by being told why.
Who Cares What People Think?
I concluded as a teenager that collectively: people are stupid. Everyone else’s main motivator at high school seemed to be ‘does this help me fit in’? or ‘is it cool’? And what makes something cool? Cool kids think it’s cool. And what makes them cool? They just are. Does that make any rational sense whatsoever? No. So are they all nuts? Obviously. So did I have any respect for their opinions about anything? No.
I suspect the weight I’ve given to rational arguments over everything else since about the age of seven, and especially throughout my teens, the black and white way I tend to see people and complex situations is another very neurodiverse trait I have. Yes, I like people and I’ve always desired friends. But I want friends on my terms. I want to be me. I don’t want to conform to other people’s expectations of me. They expect me to a binary female. They expect me to be hetro sexual. They expect me to be neurotypical. I am none of those things. So I’ve always been disinterested in anyone who doesn’t like me for me and created my own space to be me. Since I was 15, my attitude has been “I am me and if you don’t like it you can get stuffed.”
I’m Excited! Are You Excited?
There are many reasons I love teaching primary school children. Mainly, because so many things are new and exciting to them. They’re excited to be alive, and so am I. They see new amazing things and cry ‘Wow!’ They don’t care if they draw attention to themselves. They don’t care if people judge them for their enthusiasm. I don’t either.
I remember sitting in a tutorial in my first year of university and being astounded at how un-animated my classmates were. They sat so still. They looked so out of it. I put my hand up to give a wrong answer on purpose because no one else would answer the question. I wanted to knock on their skulls and call, ‘Hello? Is anybody home? Or am I taking this class with a bunch of zombies?’
There’s always been a large disconnect between my excitability and the majority of the adult population. When I meet new people, or familiar people, when I’m outside experiencing nature or exploring new places —I’m energised. I’m excited. I’m animatedly loving and living life to the full. I’m surprised that everyone is smiling at me. Then I realise I’m doing that thing where I walk around with a big smile on my face and am oblivious to doing so.
Does my brain have an off button?
I have two speeds: fast and stationary. I’m functioning at 100 miles an hour, or I’m asleep. There are rarely inbetween modes. This is because my brain DOES NOT STOP. No matter how tired I am, I am almost always thinking something, often something complicated and deep (this nearly killed me when I had long covid. My body was FUCKED and I still couldn’t rest properly for weeks). The only things that keep me present in my physical surroundings are hyper-focusing on the scenery around me and or the inner symphony playing in my head (I often have instrumental music playing in my head, usually matching my mood, especially when I’m really happy).
As a teenager I’d sometimes stay up writing novels till midnight, when my exhausted body would insist on sleep. In my twenties I switched from power walking to running five days a week, to make my body so tired that it would drag my brain to sleep at night. (That was still crucial when I started teaching full time, which should have tired me sufficiently but didn’t). In my thirties I tire more easily and don’t need as much exercise, but regular exercise still makes a HUGE difference in how well I mentally switch off and how deeply and effectively I sleep at night.
Stopping and Resting to Get Well
Self-care has perhaps been my single greatest challenge as a teacher. I always underestimate how sick I am. Usually drastically (and with a weak chest and asthma I can get SICK in winter). I spent years being terrible at lying in bed or on the couch. I’d get bored so easily. I’d try to write novels when my brain wasn’t up to it. I’d read them when it was still tiring. I’d go out for walks when I was barely well enough to stand because I HATE sitting inside all day. (Yes, even when long covid fatigue made me feel I’d gained literally gained 20-30 kilos I’d still drag myself out to walk even when a three hour lie down was what I desperately needed).
I suspect ADHD levels of desire for sensory and mental stimulation make rest very challenging for me. That’s probably why if I’m on Twitter a lot —I’m sick. Tweets are short, easy to read and write unless I’m in a comma. And they’re stimulating. So Twitter is how I talk my brain into taking it easy. Then I try to switch to tv shows, then reading, to properly relax my mind and body and let them rest so I can get well. Again, learning how to do this defies all my natural instincts and has taken YEARS. I really see ADHD all over this.
Why did you change that?
In a recent meeting at work, I was asked to do something in a different order, for which I couldn’t use my normal data, with no forewarning. I sat there going WHAT? How am I supposed to do that? We’re supposed to do the other thing first? And I won’t be able to use the thing that normally helps me. How on Earth am I supposed to do that?
There was a solution, and having had to develop all sorts of habits to make navigating a neurotypical world as a neurodiverse person easier my entire life, I quickly found it. But I’m not fond of things changing without notice. Last time I missed a flight, I had to take time to take it in. Just breathe. I can’t now do x, y, or z. Plans have changed. Then gradually, one step at a time I make a new plan of how to do things. Standing in the ticketing queue for two hours was a perfect opportunity to do this.
So heads up, if you know a neurodiverse person (especially someone who’s autistic): don’t spring sudden changes on them! Sudden change is stressful. It often needs to be processed faster than I’m capable of processing it. And if you’re the parents of an autistic child: always give them an idea of how long they can do that thing they love, that they must pack up in five minutes, in two minutes, now. Sudden change is bad!
What was I doing again?
It’s classic me that at this stage in the blog, if there was any logical connection between one subheading and another —I completely forget what it is. I knew I’d fully recovered from long covid the day I found myself working on the sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth jobs I wanted to do at home, having started, not finished and forgotten about jobs 1-5. I’m very easily distracted. The notion of beginning one thing and continuing it until its finished without starting at least three other things first is utterly foreign to me.
I normally have 70 tabs open on my computer, the maximum. If I don’t have every tab I use as an author and in my private open at once, how will I possibly remember all the digital jobs I was doing? When I completely lose track, at least once I week, I open all tabs I don’t recognise. I find writing competitions, book promotions, the latest author platform to join etc. I like open tabs for the same reason I write to do lists on physical sticky notes: because its right in front of me. I never understood the point of diaries. You write dates in them, shut them, and everything inside them ceases to exist. If I can’t see it, I forget its there. So I keep my to do list on one page, and in some cases literally put physical tasks where I will fall over them so I don’t forget them.
My high levels of energy, inability to switch off, tendency to prefer doing umpteen things at once, to forget anything I can’t see, to fail to focus well enough to manage time or navigate to new places all point to ADHD for me. My doctor thinks so too. I’ve bumbled along, noticing things I find it easier to do differently to everyone else, accepting things I suck at that they find easy, and just doing what works for me. Or making it work for me, like exercising regularly to sleep well at night. I’m relearning to manage it all, long covid having suppressed all my ADHD tendencies completely for seven months. So my next blog on this topic will be strategies I’ve developed to help manage my neurodiversity.
Living with Longcovid —My Experience
Simple ADHD online Test by Clinical Partners UK (surprise, surprise I score highly).
Simple Autism online Test by Clinical Partners UK (I scored low here).